Get rid of friction

If you want to get people to use your service, get rid of the friction.

This really hit home with me the other week, at an event I attended as part of my work at the Department of Health, which was about the patient of the future.

It struck me that what will make the real transformative change in healthcare (for example) is when people’s access to services, data and indeed connections is entirely frictionless.

Downloading an app is friction. Signing up for an account is friction. Finding a wifi connection is friction.

This is where I think internet of things stuff comes in. When your coffee cup has an internet connection, when lamposts have an internet connection, when wifi is everywhere, friction disappears.

This isn’t so far away. You can already get a coffee cup that measures the calorific contents of what you are drinking. When everyone, everything and everywhere is networked, everything changes.

The friction is replaced, of course, by a bunch of other issues – mostly ethical ones. Another, technical one, is how we handle and what we do with all this data.

VirtualGovCamp

I’d like to propose VirtualGovCamp.

I’ve just been made aware that the lovely folks at LocalGovDigital are themselves working on a local version of a virtual unconference type event. That should be awesome, but I think my idea is sufficiently different to make it worthwhile running both. I will of course be doing everything I can to help LocalGovDigital’s event a success – and hope you do too!

It will be an online event, lasting a month – probably in February. The sessions will not be synchronous, that is, you don’t have to be online at the same time as a bunch of other people to get involved. So I’m not talking webinars.

Each session will have a page on the event website. The page’s content will be built by the person running that session – who’ll be called the facilitator. They can write some text, include some links, record and embed a video, or a slideshow, or Prezi, or whatever.

Each session is open for a certain number of days, which will be displayed on a calendar on the website. Whilst the session is open, the facilitator helps manage a conversation in the comments on that page. It isn’t real-time, so people can drop in and out as they choose and don’t feel under pressure to be online at the right time.

Before the event, I’ll run an ideas competition site to bring in ideas for sessions, which can be voted on to see which ones are most popular and will be included.

Everyone involved will be emailed on a regular basis throughout the month so that they can keep up with what is going on, and where they are part of a discussion in a session, they can sign up for alerts when new comments are added, and so forth.

There’s lots more to think about and get sorted, but that’s the idea. Is it a good one? If you think so, please complete this form and let me know how you’d like to be involved.

LocalGovCamp 2014 thoughts #3 – collaboration is key

I found LocalGovCamp a really refreshing and cheering event this year. I’m going to spend a few quick posts writing up my thoughts.

Mary McKenna brilliantly facilitated an excellent discussion on collaboration – why it is needed, why it hasn’t worked that well up to now, and how that might be fixed.

Some great input came from FutureGov‘s Dom Campbell, who spoke about the some of the challenges trying to implement their Patchwork tool across multiple agencies.

There was also discussion of the limitations of the traditional approach to partnership working – overly bureaucratic, slow to make decisions, agencies working individually to deliver what should be shared objectives, really boring meetings, and so on.

What’s needed is a more agile, responsive and flexible approach to working in partnership to deliver shared outcomes.

This needs to mean organisations sharing people, resources, systems, data and more – and not just tick-box style partnerships.

What’s also vital to to this working are grown up conversations are needed about who can deliver what with the resources they have. This is no time for pride.

Podcasts you might like

As well as making my own podcast, I also love listening to those created by other people.

Here are some of my favourites – maybe you will like them too!

Try Doorbell

Robert Brook and Lloyd Davis chanter on about technology, work, and getting old.

This is the podcast that inspired me to give it a go myself.

Go there now.

This Week in Google

Leo Laporte’s TWIT network is full of great podcasts, but the Google one is my favourite, mostly due to the co-hosts, Gina Trapani and Jeff Jarvis, who really add insight to the weekly discussions about Google,
the cloud, mobile, social media and more.

Go there now.

The New Disruptors

A great podcast featuring weekly interviews with people doing new, creative things in new, creative ways. Hosted by the ace tech journalist Glenn Fleishman.

Go there now.

Cmd+Space

Myke Hurley chats every week to someone interesting who does interesting things. What can I say? I just like interview style podcasts.

Go there now.

In Our Time

Something a bit different – Radio 4’s In Our Time is just wonderful. Taking a different, often rather esoteric, topic every week, Melvyn Bragg teases a bunch of academics and experts for 45 edutaining minutes.

Go there now.

It would be great to hear what you make of these podcasts! Also, any crackers out there I ought to know about?

Problogging

I’m hugely envious of folks like Shawn Blanc and Ben Thompson. Their job is their blogs! How lucky is that?

This year I’ve really got into the content-producing swing of things – dunno if you’ve noticed. With this blog settled down and at home on WordPress.com, my newsletter working nicely thanks to Goodbits, the podcast rumbling along nicely on Libsyn and my Pinboard bookmarks providing even more stuff for people to look at if they need it, the tech and workflow is all slotting together very nicely.

It would be fantastic to be able to just focus on this content creation an curation work. It’s what I really love doing. Figuring a way to make it sustainable though is not easy.

Shawn and Ben both have membership schemes. Their core blogging is available for free, but extra bits – including content via email and podcasts – are members only. Members have to pay a certain amount to get access to it all.

This is a great way of doing things, but you need people willing to pay for your content.

Sponsorship is another way of doing things. John Gruber’s Daring Fireball does this, with the blog’s RSS feed being sponsored every week by a tech company wanting to reach his (many) readers. Gruber charges $9,500 per week for this sponsorship. Wowza!

The other option I guess is what I currently do, which is to use the content creation as a way of promoting my consulting work. The downside of this is that a) the blogging etc is a means rather than an end; and b) that I have to leave the house now and again.

Maybe I should just stop being lazy!

daveslist

Did you know I have an email newsletter? You probably do, and are fed up of me going on about it. Sorry.

It’s called Daveslist, and you can sign up for it at daveslist.io.

The newsletter is basically a list of five or so links I have spotted lately, cobbled together with a little bit of commentary explaining why I think they are interesting.

You might just find it a simple way to keep on top of interesting tech stories without having to dig them out yourself.

I’ve just hit send on the latest issue, which you can read on the web, if you like. Try before you buy! (Although, it’s free).

I put it together using a fantastic tool called Goodbits, which makes curating an email newsletter so easy it’s untrue.

Nothing’s really new…

A quick post as I am preparing my slides for the knowledge management talk I’m delivering on Thursday.

In the slides, one of the key points is that the internet from the very beginning was designed as a tool for recording and sharing knowledge. I get to cover some of my favourite ground, talking about amazing people like Vannevar Bush, Doug Englebart, Ted Nelson and of course Tim Berners-Lee.

One thing I haven’t been able to squeeze in, but a story I love, is that of the Community Memory project.

I may as well just steal the text from Wikipedia:

Community Memory was the first public computerized bulletin board system. Established in 1973 in Berkeley, California, it used an SDS 940 timesharing system in San Francisco connected via a 110 baud link to a teletype at a record store in Berkeley to let users enter and retrieve messages.

While initially conceived as an information and resource sharing network linking a variety of counter-cultural economic, educational, and social organizations with each other and the public, Community Memory was soon generalized to be an information flea market. Once the system became available, the users demonstrated that it was a general communications medium that could be used for art, literature, journalism, commerce, and social chatter.

It other words, it used a terminal in a record shop, attached to a big mainframe miles away. It brought computing power to people who would never normally go near it. It was leapt upon by people, who used it to share information, buy and sell stuff, talk to other people.

Sounds a bit hyperlocal to me.

If place is a system, let’s make it an open source one

This is a post that has been brewing for a long while, so sorry if it smells a bit. The basic concept hit me during FutureGov‘s excellent CityCamp London event, and keeps reoccurring as I have chats with people and read stuff online.

It’s not a post about technology, really, but rather taking some of the lessons learned from technology and seeing how it can be applied to everyday public services.

The way I see it is this – places, whether cities, towns, villages, or larger areas like districts, counties or regions, can be seen as systems. They have a number of different sectors and organisations working within them, all of which have their own distinct processes, but all of which also interact with one another all the time.

When you think about it, it’s amazing that the system works as well as it does most of the time. These are complicated beasts.

So what about this open source business? Well, whilst in theory anyone can contribute code to an open source project, in general, not many people actually do. Instead, development is handled by a small core group, and most people’s effort is put into testing software and submitting bug reports.

This is the role I think citizens can play in redesigning local services – not necessarily producing solutions, but spotting the issues, the bugs, and reporting them. As Eric Raymond wrote in his seminal work on open source development, the Cathedral and the Bazaar, identifying problems is the hard bit, the bit where you need ‘many eyeballs’ – solving them should be straightforward for those that understand the system.

That’s not to say that citizens shouldn’t be involved in contributing ideas for improvements, but it shouldn’t be their only contribution. I suspect this is the reason why the success of ideation competitions across the world has been variable, as Andrea Di Maio has noted on several occasions.

A key part of the bug tracking process, though, is visibility, and this is what our public services lack right now as part of the feedback mechanism.

The bugs people identify are published on the web, categorised and tagged so they can easily be found. Other people try to recreate the bugs so they can be further tested. People suggest possible solutions, which the core development team may or may not take on board.

For place to work effectively as an open source system, then, we need an open, public repository of bugs that anybody can access.

After all, there are very few areas of service delivery that just one organisation has ownership of. Take anti-social behaviour – it’s a police matter, sure, but also a health one, an education one, a social services one. There are probably some community and voluntary organisations that have an interest too.

Any one of those services might have an easy solution to a problem, but if they don’t know about it because it was reported to someone else, then nothing is going to happen.

Likewise when people are submitting issues, or bugs, they don’t necessarily care which service they should be reporting it to. Which tier of local government? Is it a police matter? We shouldn’t force people to understand our hierarchies and structures just because they want to point something out that is going wrong.

Some people might be crying out ‘FixMyStreet!’ at this stage, and that site does go a certain way to answer some of the issues I’ve written about. But there are a couple of key differences. The first is the nature and tone of FMS, which the name makes clear. ‘Fix my street!’ yells the citizen. Maybe we should turn that around, and make it ‘How can I help you to fix my street?’ might be a more positive exchange.

Not only that, but while FMS provides a space for public responses to issues from the council, it doesn’t make the process of producing a solution an open one. It doesn’t open the conversation up to the other actors in a place, it doesn’t enable citizens themselves to contribute to the solution – whether through their ideas or actually physically doing something.

Here’s another example. Maybe someone reports a bug in the local public transport arrangements, getting from a village into the local town – there isn’t a bus early enough to get them to work. They could report the bug straight into the local council, in which case it would probably end up being pushed to the transport operator. But this misses the opportunity for perhaps a local private car hire firm to step into the breach, or indeed for a local resident to offer a lift. In the latter case, sometimes a problem in the system doesn’t need a system wide fix.

There are a number of challenges to open sourcing a place like this. A major one is the way that partnerships work at the moment, which can be incredibly slow moving, bureaucratic and not terribly collaborative. A more enlightened approach will be necessary – although in this age of public sector austerity, such an attitude is likely to be required anyway.

There is some tech required – the best place for the bug tracker is online, but throwing something together in WordPress or Drupal shouldn’t take anyone who knows what they are doing too long at all.

So this concept I think starts to tie together some of my thinking around coproduction, crowdsourcing, open source and my more recent outpourings on innovation and creative collaboration.

I’d be really interested in people’s thoughts. Please spot the bugs in what I’ve written!

Whilst the half baked thinking in this post is entirely mine, the bug tracker idea was originally blogged about by Tim Davies a few years ago; and the importance of visibility was made clear to me in a conversation with Nick Booth.