Clay Shirky at the LSE

Cognitive SurplusI had an enjoyable couple of hours yesterday evening at the LSE, attending Clay Shirky‘s lecture on cognitive surplus, which was launching his book of the same name.

It was an enjoyable hour, and a real pleasure to hear stories and arguments for the use of social technology for social good.

I must admit, however, that having read Shirky’s previous book, Here Comes Everybody, and watched other lectures of his online, that perhaps his thinking hasn’t really developed that far. Cognitive Surplus seems to be a continuation of the themes examined in Here Comes Everybody rather than anything radically new.

Having said that, I haven’t read the book, but will report back when I have (it isn’t available on Kindle in the UK yet for some reason, which is annoying).

Here are the notes I took during the talk, which may or may not be useful.

  • Time we have available (free time) which is growing
  • Platform for making use of that time effectively (Internet)
  • Use of the network: consume, produce, share
  • Wikipedia = 100 million hours of time in 10ish years
  • Tv = 200 billion hours watched every year in US
  • The time spent watching adverts in the US over one weekend is roughly equivalent to one wikipedia
  • Very small numbers of change can have huge effects
  • Ushahidi – Kenyan tracks updates from various media. Been open sourced and used around the world.
  • Generosity + digital tech
  • Successful digital projects are those that appeal to our human instincts
  • Transition from alchemy to chemistry – same tech but different approach/culture. Supported by printing press and the new scientific journals.
  • Patientslikeme – huge documentation project of sufferers. Large amounts of aggregate data: shared value. Commercial project. “digital sharecropping”. Why do people contribute for free? They like it!
  • Social pressure often more effective than contractual (example of picking kids up from school on time) once broken also not self healing.
  • Openness and sharing is a good thing. Patientslikeme want to effect a culture change in the medical profession. Therefore tech is secondary to the project. Makes it possible but the objective is cultural.
  • Levels o participation and collaboration: lolcats are communal. Wikipedia has public value. Patientslikeme creates civic value. Gets more difficult and complicated as you go along. Also the civic is the most important.
  • Role of government – to help to create the space for social capital and cognitive surplus to emerge. Digital divide: participation rates much higher in better educated households
  • Things to think about: scarcity, loose joins, cheapness of distributing information, Internet routes itself around faults

Events, dear boy…

Quite a few events coming up in the next couple of weeks that I should probably let you know about.

Next week I’m attending a few things: on Monday, the Clay Shirky lecture on Cognitive Surplus at the LSE, followed by the Learning Pool steering group meeting on Tuesday. I’ll be talking to the group about our plans for further engagement work along the lines of our Let’s Talk Central project with Central Bedfordshire Council, as well as some updates to our Modern Councillor service, which I hope to be able to tell everyone about real soon.

Then on Thursday I am going to be talking to the Centre for Public Scrutiny conference about engaging with local communities online. I will be particularly looking forward to this as my second job in local government was as a scrutiny officer at a district council.

I’m ending the week in Bristol, at NALC‘s conference celebrating local democracy. I’ll be showing some local council clerks and councillors how they can be spending a little bit of time and no money at all on cool ways of engaging with their communities online.

After a rest – or should I say, chance to catch up on email – over the weekend, I hit the road again, or rather the train, heading down to NESTA’s ‘Digital Disrupters‘ event on Monday 5th.

Then it’s Wednesday at the LGA conference in Bournemouth where I’m facilitating a fringe session, optimistically titled “A thoroughly modern council”. You can sign up for it here.

Finally, on Friday I travel again to the south-west, this time to Cheltenham to the Institute of Local Council Management summer seminar. I’ll be talking about “using social networking technologies for mobilising political and community action”.

Busy times! I shouldn’t complain though, if it were any different I would probably be quite bored.


QuoraQuora is an interesting looking service, providing a fairly straightforward question and answer platform. It’s been in closed beta for a while, but now has been unleashed onto the public at large.

It’s all about capturing the activity we all do on sites like Twitter: asking questions, giving answers, and researching topics online. Quora adds to this activity by turning it into a searchable and collaborative archive:

Quora is a continually improving collection of questions and answers created, edited, and organized by everyone who uses it. The most important thing is to have each question page become the best possible resource for someone who wants to know about the question.

Part of the reason for some of the hype around Quora is the fact that it has been founded by a bunch of people involved in Facebook’s early days. They know how to build a decent web app.

TechCrunch have a decent write-up, with a warning of a potential problem now the site is public:

Their biggest challenge is about to begin. Quora has generated attention not just because of its slick interface, but because of the extremely high quality of its answers up until this point — it isn’t unusual for someone to ask a question and have it answered by a top expert in the field within a matter of hours (or less). Likewise, questions about various Internet companies often attract answers from longtime employees. The big question now is whether or not Quora will be able to maintain that quality as it deals with an influx of new users.

I’ve signed up, and you can find me here. Will be fascinating to see how this works out.

Update: writing this reminded me about Formspring, which hasn’t really taken off for me. Quora differs because it is based on subjects and issues rather than individuals. My Formspring page is here.

Everything you ever need to know about the internet

John NaughtonJohn Naughton is consistently one of the – if not the – best writers we have about technology. His A Brief History Of The Future is a simply fantastic introduction to the internet: why and how it came about, from Vannevar Bush‘s vision of the Memex through Douglas Englebart‘s ‘Mother of all demos‘ to Arpanet and Tim Berners-Lee‘s use of HTTP and HTML to form the world wide web. It was the first book I thought to lend Breda when she joined my little team at Learning Pool.

His blog and Observer column are well worth regularly checking too. Occasionally I am lucky enough to meet up with John, along with that other titan of technology, Quentin Stafford-Fraser, for lunch in Cambridge. It’s difficult not to feel utterly fraudulent during these conversations, but I do my best.

John’s name has been punted all round Twitter during the last couple of days thanks to a feature article that appeared in the Observer on Sunday, called Everything you ever need to know about the internet. It’s a great context-setting piece, reminding us all how new this stuff is – and yet, at the same time, that many of the issues involved are as old as time.

This ties in with some of what I have been thinking and writing recently about people’s attitudes to the internet – such as the fact that it shouldn’t be viewed as just another channel, and that it is a profoundly creative space. I suspect a lot of this comes down to a lack of real understanding of what the net is about.

So, go read the article. Then print it out and put it in your boss’s in-tray. The world will be a better place.

Collaborative innovation

This is a great video from John Seely Brown, who is a really interesting guy. His website blurb states that

I’m a visiting scholar at USC and the independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge.

In a previous life, I was the Chief Scientist of Xerox Corporation and the director of its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). I was deeply involved in the management of radical innovation and in the formation of corporate strategy and strategic positioning of Xerox as The Document Company.

He also has a book out, which looks good: The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion.

Anyway, here’s a video of a recent talk he gave on collaborative innovation. Well worth a watch.

Reflecting on Local by Social

I wrote up quite a bit of what was said at the Local by Social event yesterday, but didn’t add much in the way of comment or analysis. This post makes up for that. I’ll try and sum up what the themes were for me which really stood out.

First of all, of course, great work FutureGov and IDeA!

Local by Social

Me, Steve Bridger and Lloyd Davis, by Paul Clarke

1. We probably are moving on from talking about social media

I did think just how far things have moved on in the last few years. I remember conversations had with Steve Dale back in 2006 when it seemed like nobody else in local government was remotely interested. Now it seems like most authorities are at least aware of the developments in the web and how citizens are using it – and are starting to think how they might engage with it.

I think that ‘social media’ as being seen as a distinct element of activity is starting to disappear, with some bits heading into comms, other bits into web teams and so on. Our project with Central Bedfordshire, Let’s Talk Central, was delivered through the consultation team, for example.

In other words, using social media tools is becoming less of a thing, and more just a set of skills for delivering tasks and activity, which is almost certainly the right thing to do.

However, it still seems to be that comms and marketing folk are those most often attracted to events like this, which is a shame as service managers and policy types need to be a part of this conversation too.

2. Rethinking relationships

Much of the discussion at Local by Social was not about using social media but what was made possible by social media – which is a healthy way of looking at things. Much of this is focused on relationships – between government and governed, service designers and users, between individuals living in an area.

If anything local government should be looking to foster relationships and take an active part whenever it can. Reinventing relationships too, where necessary – giving people power to organise stuff for themselves where they want to, only stepping in when needed.

Another relationship to be rethought is between government and supplier, of course. All the presentations from social innovators were from small organisations which may not fit in too well with existing procurement systems and whatnot. To tap into these great ideas and enthusiastic people, process might need to give way.

3. Focus on outcomes

Following on from this, councils must think strategically about what it is they are trying to achieve rather than what is being done and who is doing it. It may well be that patchworks of service delivery models are required – some areas may have residents who can organise themselves, others may not.

It looks like a lot of the discussion around efficiency savings in local government is focusing on reducing staff numbers, restructuring and cutting services. In other words, doing the same things, only cheaper. This means councils could fall into the trap of doing the wrong things righter as opposed to taking the opportunity to really rethink who delivers what and how.

4. Be bold

Another key message from the day was that this is exactly the time for local government to throw off its shackles, rethink approaches to risk, and embrace innovative ways of working. I guess this comes down to attitude – is innovation a costly luxury, or a vital part of meeting demand in a time of cost cuts?

For a forward thinking person, the latter is obviously preferable, but is it likely to be the route taken by most local government managers? I’m not sure. But those that do will find themselves getting ahead of the rest.

Of course, who actually does the innovation is an interesting question. As I have mentioned above, the council’s role in this innovation might just be to pass the work onto someone who can actually do the innovating…

5. Don’t be boring

More and more I’m drawn back to what I posted about 18 months ago – that government should get away from the idea that for something to be useful it has to be very serious and dare I say it, boring. The greatest example of this at Local by Social was from Do the Green Thing, a wonderful campaign about getting people engaged in being a bit more environmentally aware. Take their videos for example, simple, funny and memorable:

Again, this is exactly what Let’s Talk Central is about – we don’t want to force people to read huge documents, or fill in surveys with hundreds of questions, or make them send emails into black holes from which they never get a response. We wanted to get people to talk about what they are interested in, using a medium they are comfortable with, in the space where they like to go.

Communications from councils are too boring. Consultation with councils is too boring. Decision making processes in councils are too boring. Selling to councils is too boring. I’m not talking dumbing down, I’m talking making things attractive to people, to encourage them to get involved.

For me, this is the most important thing to fix, and it’s probably the easiest of them all as well.

Further coverage of Local by Social:

Bookmarks for June 7th through June 17th

I find this stuff so that you don’t have to.

You can find all my bookmarks on Delicious. There is also even more stuff on my shared Google Reader page.

You can also see all the videos I think are worth watching at my video scrapbook.

Local by Social: Networked Neighbourhoods

Here’s Hugh Flouch!

  • Hyperlocal communities
  • Harringay Online – 2,900 members, 4-500 visits a day, 2-300 visitors a day
  • Has discussion forum, event promotion, information about public services, photo gallery and local history archive
  • ‘a bible of local information and gossip’ – BBC news
  • ‘the biggest residents’ association in the borough’ – a local cllr
  • It’s also a peer support group
  • Is translating into on the ground impact. Campaigns eg on betting shops and transport issues.
  • Events are organised by the community, meetups, festivals and parties
  • Next move is into co-production. During the snow, the site was used to organise action on snow clearing
  • Now doing research into London’s ‘digital neighbourhoods’
  • Using local sites results in meeting new neighbours and a greater sense of belonging
  • Also increases likelihood of contacting politicians or local council officers
  • Also results in improved perception of local politicians etc

Local by Social: School of Everything

Paul Miller now up, from the School of Everything.

  • SoE is all about getting more people to learn – the things they want to learn about
  • Since Sept 2008
  • Private enterprise backed by investment
  • SoE can help reduce costs, do more with less, reinvent the organisation of lifelong learning
  • Listings on SoE is free, and can find out what people are searching for in a particular geographic area
  • Can target provision to better meet demand
  • Find hidden resources to support lifelong learning – involve independent teachers and groups – and a database of venues
  • SoE is a database, not just about the web but also TV, print media, mobile etc
  • Working on citizen generated education. A tool is being developed to help organise local peer learning groups

Local by Social: Patient Opinion

Patient Opinion is a great site for people to leave feedback about their experiences with health services.

  • Really micro level issues can be discussed and action taken
  • Based on the telling of stories by service users
  • Great example of dodgy toilet seats!
  • Ratings for responses from institutions
  • Patient Opinion makes it possible to access thoughtful, passionate people who aren’t motivated to complain
  • Higher threshold for willingness to share with public services – eg easier to share a cat video than a story about your weird disease
  • Lessons: transparency and conversations drive change, adaptable to council work, scalable, cost effective, business model and values
  • Government cannot do this kind of work well – and nor the purely private sector. This work belongs in social enterprises