Monthly Archives: August 2012

Here’s OurHousing!

The Nominet Trust has announced what for us is some jolly exciting news, which is that they have approved us for funding to develop OurHousing, a new social startup that will encourage dialogue between social housing tenants and their landlords to improve services and enhance community spirit.

Fraser and I are delighted because we’ve been working on this, under the radar, for most of the year so far.

We’ve been really impressed with sites like Patient Opinion and MyPolice, which use the web in very simple, but useful ways to bring public service users into the process of improving those services. At the same time, we’ve been keeping tabs on the movement to digitally enable those living in social housing, whether as tenants or within shared ownership schemes.

Bringing these two strands together made perfect sense, and OurHousing was born. Social housing customers leave feedback about their landlords on the site, where it can be discussed publicly, and the landlords can respond officially. As a result of these discussions, services can be improved with the knowledge gained via the independent feedback process.

In developing OurHousing, we have been helped enormously by Jayne Hilditch of Thames Valley Housing. TVH is a development partner of OurHousing, supporting us financially by investing early in the service, and by advising us on the finer points of the social housing sector and relevant policy.

Our team is also starting to develop, with Philip John providing the technical nous, and Janet Harkinleading on the marketing effort. We’re also blessed with a fabulous advisor on the business side of things, in my old boss Mary McKenna.

We’ve a long way to go, but  with the funding we have attracted, the people on the team and our own enthusiasm and motivation, we feel we’ve got a product that can make a real difference to people’s lives.

Please keep in touch with us, by signing up for our newsletter, and following us on Twitter. If you’re from a housing provider, and would like to know more about the service and perhaps getting involved, then please get in touch.

What might mobile democracy look like?

I’ve often said that the problem with participation in local democracy is that it just isn’t convenient enough. Meetings? Pah! I’m too busy trying to earn a living, quite frankly.

So mobile offers a really interesting opportunity. After all, the smartphones that sit in the pockets of an ever-growing number of people have a level of ubiquity that could make it work. You could also bring in some other recent developments (don’t say buzzwords) like gamification to further boost engagement levels.

Here’s an idea on how something could work.

It’s based on a pretty old e-democracy principle – e-panels! Rather than have a citizen panel of say 50 people, you develop an online group of hundreds or even thousands. Then you give them things to do, which are suitable to a mobile device.

The key to this is making the activities short, simple and reasonably interesting. If you look at the really popular games on smartphones, things like Angry Birds, Temple Run, World of Goo and so on, they are all games that can be picked up and played for a couple of minutes. They don’t tend to be long, drawn out strategic affairs.

So, some of the things that the mobile democracy app (or mobile friendly website…) could do might be to choose between several options. Perhaps something really blunt like “Libraries or lolly pop ladies?”; or between two images, one with a housing development in it and one without. Maybe ask people to take and submit a photo along a theme.

These aren’t referendums or anything like that, of course. But by regularly asking large numbers of people to respond, an organisation can build up a picture of what people think, which ways they lean on various issues.

By having a big group to work from, it wouldn’t matter if not everyone responds every time, and again, it’s about developing that database of people and their views.

Gamification might provide another way of increasing levels of participation – I’m always nervous about rewards – but perhaps leaderboards with badges would encourage people getting stuck in. There’s a danger that doing such things reduces the quality of responses – people would just respond with anything rather than thinking about it, just to get that top spot – but hopefully having large enough groups of people involved would minimise the impact.

I’d be interested in other people’s thoughts on this as always. Seen anything out there in terms of using mobile to promote and encourage democratic participation? Or perhaps you think I’m barking up the wrong tree?

Youth councils – any good examples?

I’m starting to look at youth councils with a local authority, particularly in terms of how digital can improve levels of participation.

I’ve got some ideas, admittedly not youth council-centric, but rather taking stuff I’ve learned from other online engagement projects and hoping it will fit.

So I’m Googling away like mad, looking up different youth councils and some of the things they are doing online. I’ve not turned up much in the way of really innovative ideas just yet.

So, I’m turning to you, faithful readers. Seen anything good? Let me know!

Decline and fall?

Twitter has been taking a bit of a pasting in the technology media world recently. Could this mean it is facing a bleak future, and could become the new MySpace, or Friendster? Or even – the horror! – FriendsReunited?

The biggest furore came when they recently changed the terms of use for their API or application programming interface – the data feed that various other services can use to manipulate Twitter content.

Effectively Twitter are limiting access to the API for many of the apps that people have come to know and love. For example, many of the ‘client’ applications people use to access Twitter, which are independent of Twitter itself, are going to find life more difficult in the future.

On top of annoying the developer community, Twitter has irritated its own user base too, with the over hasty censoring of accounts; and the growth of advertising on the platform.

This latter point is the important one. Twitter has grown into a vast social network, but hasn’t actually made much money over the last five years. What it needs to do is to turn it’s userbase into cash – and the best way of doing that, they think, is ads. Hence the clampdown on third party client apps – which may interfere with the way the ads appear to users.

Finally, a few folk are feeling increasingly nervous about the fact that content they create, such as tweets, isn’t owned by them. It’s all held in a database by Twitter, and they can choose to do with it what they will.

To a certain extent, people should probably just stop whining. After all, Twitter never claimed to be anything other than a for profit corporate company – this day was going to come sooner or later. But given the way Twitter has developed, their recent behaviour does stick in the craw somewhat.

  • Who came up with the idea for @ replies? Not Twitter – it was the users and third party developers.
  • Who came up with the idea for hashtags? Not Twitter – it was the users and third party developers.
  • Who came up with the bird motif? Not Twitter – it was a third party developer.
  • Who puts all the content into Twitter? Not Twitter – it’s the users.

The list can go on. Again, all those people who invested time, content and ideas into Twitter have little to complain about, really. Twitter never claimed to be open source. They’re free to take people’s suggestions and incorporate them as they please. That’s part of the deal with using a ‘free’ service.

However, people have started to hit back. app.net is a new Twitter clone with a slight difference: you have to pay $50 to use it. This means no ads, an open API and no corporations interfering with the way the service runs.

It also provides an option to download all your data, which kind of answers the content control issue.

I’ve started using it and my profile is just here: https://alpha.app.net/davebriggs. It’s slow, as you can imagine any new network is – let alone one that you have to pay to join. I’m not convinced it will succeed as anything other than an online ghetto for people who have fallen out of love with Twitter.

Also, remember Diaspora? Thought not. They tried to do a similar thing, but to Facebook. Didn’t work – nobody cared enough.

Others like Dave Winer (the somewhat cantankerous tech legend who invented RSS amongst other things) are promoting a much more open way of publishing, where people control their own servers running their own software, and through protocols and standards, they talk to one another. In other words, decentralising the whole social networking concept.

An example of this emerged recently, called tent.io.

This makes sense for people with the chops to run software like this, and perhaps to serious, professional content creators. But for people chatting about what’s happening on Xfactor? Probably not.

What does this mean for digital engagers in government and beyond?

Not a lot. Keep calm and carry on, as the increasingly irritating posters, tea towels, coasters and rolls of toilet paper keep telling us. Twitter isn’t going away. Many of these debates are fairly arcane and only of interest to the tiny percentage of the population that actually care.

Twitter remains an easy to access, free to use channel for people to quickly share their thoughts about what is happening to them at that moment, and it has enormous reach too.

For those that do worry about owning your content, keeping records and backing up, you can always make use of tools like ifttt to keep a copy of everything you publish.

Twitter will be with us for a long while yet.

How open are council meetings?

DCLG have today announced that residents, bloggers, tweeters, community activists and hyperlocal sites should have the same access and facilities to council meetings as traditional newspaper journalists. This is important because it means Government recognises the valuable contribute the wider community makes to accountability in local government.

It’s a very timely announcement. For a while now I’ve been interested in the openness of council meetings. Namely, whether citizens, media or councillors are permitted to live tweet/blog, record audio of or film public meetings.

I have secured permission to film the meetings of my local council meetings in Lichfield and heard stories of others being forced to leave or even arrested for attempting to do the same.

These are just a few examples of the current state of play so an effort to document which councils allow their meetings to be opened up I created Open Council Meetings, a simple project to track which councils allow tweeting, recording and filming of meetings.

My hope is that the project can help bring together localgov enthusiasts, hyperlocal bloggers and active citizens to monitor the situation and put pressure on councils to open up.

 

Introducing Kind of Digital Exchange

It’s not the most exciting bit of technology in the world, but it could be very useful.

I read an awful lot of stuff on the web – thanks to Google Reader, it’s made really easy. Lots of people don’t have the time to do so, and are quite grateful to have useful items pointed out to them. I usually do this by putting links up on my Twitter profile, and the occasional link round up post here on the blog.

The trouble is that Twitter is a very ephemeral medium, and if people miss links, or don’t record them anywhere, then finding them again can be very tough. I’m also slightly uncomfortable that someone else has a hold of all this data! What’s needed is a way to record these things for posterity, and perhaps create a conversation around them.

So, in about an hour of fiddling, I made the Kind of Digital Exchange. It simply publishes links to stories I find interesting, with tags to enable easier searching, and the ability for people to leave comments.

As well as the main site, you can grab the RSS feed, get the results by email or follow the firehose on Twitter.

It’s very basic – just a bog standard WordPress instance and the free, open source, P2 theme. The interesting bit takes place away from the site, where I have set up the wonderful IFTTT to pump items I star in Google Reader into Exchange as posts within WordPress. This means that for me to share something via the site, I just click a single button.

It doesn’t have to be just me though. I’d be delighted if others could contribute. Using IFTTT as the spine, it’s easy to pull content in from other sites, whether Google Reader as I do, or maybe through Delicious bookmarks.

So, if you’re keen to start contributing links to the site, let me know and we can get it sorted. Of course, you can start commenting on links right away!

Will this become the digital engagement equivalent of something like the awesome Hacker News? Probably not. But it didn’t take long to put together, and if people find it useful, then that’s alright with me. Of course, if lots of people find it useful, I’ll throw some resources at it to give it a makeover and start to add some functionality. Stuff like:

  • user liking or upvoting of the best content
  • user tagging of articles
  • ability to reshare links on other networks

…and I am sure there’s a lot more too. There’s a page to share ideas.

So do please go and have a look, and maybe get involved. I was asked the other day where people in government can go to find examples of innovation and creative ideas. Other than say ‘look on Twitter’ it was hard to muster a proper response. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to say – ‘look on the Kind of Digital Exchange!’.

Supporting innovation in local government

i had a great morning in Exeter at the beginning of the week, talking with the corporate management team at Devon County Council about innovation and digital. Dom Campbell was there too, thus proving that the two of us can both be in the same room at the same time.

We were invited down by Carl Haggerty, who has been one of the most relentless supporters of new working and the opportunities of technology to change local government for the better. In September, Carl is running Open Space South West – an event all about nurturing innovation in public services in the area. I’ll be speaking at it, and I recommend you come down if you can. Tickets here.

In my little session, I spoke about how digital innovation can happen within local government by making some small cultural changes and giving examples of them in action. My slides are embedded below, or if you can’t access sites like Slideshare, here’s a PDF you can download.

I wrote a fair bit about supporting innovation in councils about 18 months ago, my starting point being the skunkworks in central government, which is now part of the Government Digital Service at the Cabinet Office. The posts were:

It’s fair to say with hindsight I think that I got rather carried away with the concept of skunkworks in those posts. But the point is that few local councils have a properly thought-out and communicated approach to innovation. If someone in the organisation has an idea about making things better, where do they go? How do they tell people about it? How are ideas judged, prototyped and implemented?

It ought not be too hard to come up with a simple model that can be customised by individual authorities. It could involve a simple platform for identifying issues and problems, or sharing ideas, combined with some open space style face to face get togethers where solutions can be explored and worked on. Regular reporting on progress and evaluating activity would be vital too.

Any local authorities (or other organisations!) up for trying something out? Could be really interesting.

(The photo, if your’re interested, is of Dawlish in Devon where I and the family stayed during our brief visit to the area.)

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to: