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.

We need more councillors, not less

The MJ reports on Buckinghamshire County Council’s successful bid to reduce the number of members elected to it, from 57 to 49, in the name of cost cutting.

County deputy leader Bill Chapple said: ‘I’m delighted the commission is taking our proposals forward. We are living in a time of austerity when tough decisions have to be taken, and in making these proposals members are supporting the cost saving process.’

Drawing up new divisional boundaries will take account of an average 7,750 voters to each member, 1,050 below the national average. Mr Chapple said the revised ratio would maintain a ‘good democratic representation for the electorate, and save £100,000 a year.

Not commenting specifically on this example, but I think that, in general, we need more councillors, not less.

I mentioned my reasons in an earlier post. Basically, we have too few people doing too much, and a rethink about the role of the elected member is needed if we are to attract more people to get involved.

Cllr James Cousins argued persuasively on Twitter that if councillors took a more strategic view on issues, rather than getting bogged down in operational stuff, they would then be able to do better with fewer numbers.

It’s certainly a view I have sympathy with. Having been a member services officer in a previous life, I have far too many memories of trying to coax from councillors their views on a strategic report, rather than just having typos pointed out to me.

However, I think the thought of spending hour upon hour in town hall meetings and reading countless numbers of reports is still going to put off a large number of people getting involved.

As well as more councillors, we need better councillors. People with drive and ambition, people passionate about issues with fresh perspectives and different attitudes and cultures. Not only will this make council chambers more representative but it ought to make them better at what they do.

But these people – dynamic types with ideas and enthusiasm – are generally pretty busy being successful at other things. They don’t have a lot of time. Being a councillor right now – even if you take the strategic outlook Cllr Cousins encourages – takes up a lot of time, especially if you want to do it properly.

So rather than just having one or two representatives per ward, let’s have have a few more. Many as many as five or even ten for the bigger ones. These councillors split the work between them, taking on as much as they have time for and preferably the bits they are good at, or at least knowledgeable about.

They work together collaboratively – which would bring in the most culture change, especially where more than one political party is represented. Elections would certainly be very different affairs – but then I would argue that local elections are dominated by either local personality or national politics and policy – rather than specific local policy. In fact it might be that the party system loses its relevance in the local context.

This is, as always from me, half baked thinking. I’ve no doubt that there are stacks of reasons why this is a dumb idea. But I’ve never one been tempted to stand as a councillor, having seen the stresses and workloads it brings. Given the option to be involved, but sharing the effort with others, I might change my mind.

The network is the computer

Google announced a bunch of stuff last week, finally bringing to the mainstream some bits of tech that have been bubbling away for a few years now.

One is the Chrome operating system, a lightweight OS for netbooks that pretty much hand everything over to the web. So, the OS handles keyboard and mouse inputs and that sort of thing, but basically just boots into a browser and lets you do all your stuff online.

After all, with developments in web technology, who needs software anyway? Google Docs does most of the stuff people who need an office suite use, Picnik is a pretty cool image editor, Gmail is a far better mail client than Outlook is and tools like Huddle and Basecamp provide neat ways of organising your work and collaborating on projects.

Even big, enterprisey software is available through the web now. Salesforce provides a pretty comprehensive CRM offering, Kashflow does the same for accounting, and sites like Netsuite and SAP’s Business by Design provide boring ERP software in the browser.

This is the part of cloud computing known as software-as-a-service. Learning Pool‘s stuff runs on very similar lines: our customers have no software to install, and therefore no patches or upgrades to worry about. Everything can be accessed from anywhere with a browser and a connection to the net.

Anyway, back to Google and Chrome OS. Here’s a video with the skinny:

The idea of the online operating system isn’t new – here’s a review of a previous attempt called YouOS (now sadly dead) that I wrote back in March 2006 – but developments in cloud computing and the almost ubiquitous availability of decent speed broadband (ok, it’s not everywhere yet, especially in rural locations) make it a much more realistic proposition.

What’s interesting about the YouOS example is that it included native applications within the OS itself, rather than just pointing people to existing, external apps. I wrote at the time:

The notion of the online desktop is an interesting one, that conjures the image of computer boxes doing nothing other than handling the keyboard, mouse, display and internet connection; and where you can log in with any machine anywhere in the world and get your own desktop. I suspect, though, that the route that YouOS is taking is the wrong one. What the online OS needs to do is not provide the applications, just the means of accessing the applications, which can be developed by other people on other sites, and the means of storing data to be used and shared between those applications.

It seems like I was probably right about this one (it doesn’t happen often).

Chrome OS won’t be made available for existing netbook owners to download and install – although the fact that it is based on an open source project means that someone else could make it happen. This means that it isn’t possible to have a play with it to see how it works, which is a shame.

One thing that you can have a play with – assuming you have access to Google’s Chrome browser (currently my browser of choice, mainly due to the speed and efficiency of the thing) – is the Chrome Web Store.

A healthy proportion of people are pretty comfortable with the idea of app stores – we’ve used them with our iPhones and iPads, and Android phones and Blackberry users have their own stores – reasonably safe places where applications can be found for the device you are using. Linux users have had an app store like experience for years.

Where these differ with the Chrome store is that Google’s offering is all about web apps, those that work within a browser rather than being native applications that you have to download and install onto your computer, or mobile device.

This is something I struggle with slightly, in terms of understanding what the point is. I mean, when a web app is just an app that runs in a browser, and all you have on your system for accessing apps is a browser, what’s the difference between installing an app and just having a bookmark to it in your browser?!

I guess the answer is around a) making it easy for users to find apps, and providing a space for reviews and that sort of thing; b) enabling a more integrated experience between a web app and the system being used; and c) creating a marketplace where paid-for apps can be, well, paid for.

One neat feature is that by using your Google account, you can sync your Chrome web app setup across machines – so if you log into your account on a different computer, albeit still using Chrome, then your apps come with you, which is cool for portability.

Here’s the video:

The good news about the Chrome store is that folk using the Chrome browser on their usual computer can make use of it. There seems to be a couple of example of Chrome web apps which aren’t available for other browsers – TweetDeck being one.

I’m not quite sure why this is, nor indeed if it is a good thing. There’s the possibility of certain apps only being available to users of certain browsers, which isn’t great.

Still, it’s another step forward for the mainstreaming of cloud computing and software-as-a-service in general.

There’s been quite a bit of talk of a government cloud infastructure as well as an app store for public service use. Indeed, some of these ideas are present in the Knowledge Hub project. The USA government has had an app store for a little while now.

As we pass from the age of the stationary microcomputer and the software industry into a world of commodity computing, understanding the benefits of the approach will be vital – and not just for those working in IT. Indeed, the role of IT departments in organisations will almost certainly need a rethink.

Me ‘talking’ about UKGovCamp and unconferences on Local by Social

I am facilitating a session on (at?) the Local by Social online conference on Monday, 8th November at 13:30 on the topic of the GovCamp movement and unconferences in general.

A couple of levels of sign up are required (it’s hosted on the Communities of Practice) but hopefully we’ll have some good discussion and a few folk will be suitably inspired to run their own events.

Click through to the discussion.

DavePress podcast 3 – Tim Davies

Tim Davies

Finally, the third DavePress podcast! Here I chat to Tim Davies of Practical Participation about open data and his research into the subject.

[audio:http://traffic.libsyn.com/davepress/DavePress_Ep_3.mp3%5D

If you can’t, or don’t want to, use the flash player, you can download the .mp3 instead or subscribe with iTunes.

If you have any feedback – or want to volunteer to be a participant in a podcast, please do so in the comments below, or emailpodcast@davepress.net.

For those that want to know, here’s how the podcast is produced.

Update on the Knowledge Hub

Knowledge Hub

I spent an enjoyable afternoon at the advisory group for the Knowledge Hub (KHub) last Tuesday (sorry for the delay in writing this up…). Steve Dale chaired the day which featured a number of updates about the project, in terms of procurement and project management; technology platform and supplier; and communications and engagement.

Remember – the Knowledge Hub is the next generation of the Communities of Practice. Think of it as CoPs with an open API, plus some extra functionality.

The Knowledge Hub is going to be built by an outfit called PFIKS – who I must admit I had never heard of before. Their approach is heavily open source based and apparently they have about 80% of the Knowledge Hub requirements already working within their platform.

I’ve come away with a load of thoughts about this, most of which I have managed to summarise below.

1. Open platform

One of the strongest improvements that the Knowledge Hub will bring as compared to the current Communities of Practice platform is the fact that is will be open. This means that developers will be able to make use of APIs to use Knowledge Hub content and data to power other services and sites.

One compelling example is that of intranets – a suggestion was made that it would be possible to embed Knowledge Hub content in a council intranet – without the user knowing where the information came from originally. Later in this post I’ll talk about the engagement challenges on this project, but perhaps creative use of the API will enable some of these issues to be sidestepped.

Another aspect of this is the Knowledge Hub app store. I’m not quite sure whether this will be available within the first release, but it should come along pretty soon afterwards – it’s something Steve Dale seems pretty excited about. Developers will be able to create apps which make use of content and data stored within the Knowledge Hub to do cool stuff. I’m guessing it will be a two way thing, so content etc externally stored can be pulled into the Knowledge Hub and mashed up with other content.

It’s certainly something for Learning Pool, and I guess other suppliers to local gov, to consider – how can our tools and content interact with the Knowledge Hub?

2. Open source

The open source approach is to integrate various components into a stable, cohesive platform. This appears to be based on the Liferay publishing platform, with others bits added in to provide extra functionality – such as DimDim, for example, for online meetings and webinars; and Flowplayer for embedding video.

On the backend, the open source technology being used includes the Apache Solr search platform which is then extended with Nutch; and Carrot2, which clusters collections of documents – such as the results of a search query – into thematic categories. I think it is fair to say that the search bit of the KHub should be awesome.

What is also cool is that PFIKS publish their code to integrate all this stuff as open source as well – so not only are they using open source, they are also contributing back into the community. This is good.

Open Source, as I have written earlier, is not as simple a thing to understand as it might first appear. There are numerous complications around licensing and business models that have to be considered before a project commences. It certainly isn’t the case that by using open source tools that you can just rely on the community to do stuff for you for free – which seems a common misunderstanding.

Still, from the early exchanges, it appears that PFIKS get open source and are taking an active involvement in the developer communities that contribute to their platform. Hopefully the Knowledge Hub will end up as being a great example of collaboration between government, a supplier, and the open source community.

3. Data

One of the original purposes of the Knowledge Hub was that it would be a tool to help local authorities share their data. This was a couple of years ago, when Steve first started talking about the project, when data.gov.uk didn’t exist and the thought of publishing all purchases over £500 would have been anathema.

It would appear that the data side of things is taking a bit of a back seat at the moment, with the revamp of the communities taking centre stage. My understanding up until this point was that the Knowledge Hub would act as a repository for local government data to be stored and published. It would appear from some of the responses at the meeting that isn’t going to be the case now.

This is, in many ways, probably a good thing, as authorities like Lincoln, Warwickshire and Lichfield (amongst others) are proving that publishing data isn’t actually that hard.

However, all those authorities are those with really talented, and data-savvy people working on their web and ICT stuff. Are all councils that lucky? Perhaps not.

Hadley Beeman’s proposed project seems to be one that pretty much does what I thought the Knowledge Hub might do, and so again, maybe a good reason for the KHub not to do it.

When a question was asked about data hosting on KHub, the response was that it could be possible on a time-limited basis. In other words (I think), you could upload some data, mash it up with something else on the KHub, then pull it out again. Does that make sense? I thought it did, but now I have typed it up it seems kind of stupid. I must have got it wrong.

4. Engagement

You could count the number of people who actually came from real local authorities on one hand at the meeting, which for an advisory group is slightly worrying – not least because this was the big ‘reveal’ when we found out what the solution was going to be and who the supplier was. Actually – maybe that’s not of huge interest to the sector?

Anyway, it’s fair to say that there hasn’t been a huge level of interest from the user side of things throughout this project. Again, maybe that’s fair enough – perhaps in this age of austerity, folk at the coal face need to be concentrating on less abstract things. But now the KHub is becoming a reality I think it will become increasingly important to get people from the sector involved in what is going on to ensure it meets their needs and suits the way they work. By the sound of the work around the ‘knowledge ecology’ that Ingrid is working on, plenty of effort is going to be put in this direction.

It will also be vital for the Knowledge Hub to have some high quality content to attract people into the site when it first launches, to encourage engagement across the sector.

For all the talk of open APIs and the Knowledge Hub being a platform as much as a website, it still figures that for it to work, people need to actually take a look at it now and again. To drag eyeballs in, there needs to be some great content sat there waiting for people to find and be delighted by.

Much of this could be achieved by the transfer of the vast majority of the existing content on the Communities of Practice. There’s an absolute tonne of great content on there, and because of the way the CoPs are designed, quite a lot of it is locked away in communities that a lot of people don’t have access to. By transferring all the content across and making it more findable, the whole platform will be refreshed.

5. Fragmentation

The issue of fragmentation occurred to me as the day went on, and in many ways it touches on all of the points above. For while the Knowledge Hub both pulls in content from elsewhere and makes its own content available for other sites, there are still going to be outposts here and there which just don’t talk a language the KHub understands or indeed any language at all.

It’ll be great for dorks like me to automatically ping my stuff into Knowledge Hub, whether posts from this blog, or my Delicious bookmarks, shared Google Reader items, or videos I like. But those sites which publish stuff without

One striking example of this are the Knowledge Forums on the LG Improvement and Development website, which have continued despite the existence of the functionally richer Communities of Practice. My instinct would always to have been to close these forums and port them to the CoPs to both reduce the fragmentation of content and the confusion to potential users.

What about the content and resources on the rest of the LG Improvement and Development website – will that continue to exist outside of the rest of the platform, or will it be brought inside the KHub?

There are plenty of other examples of good content existing in formats which can’t easily be resused in the KHub, and for it to be the window on local government improvement, it’s going to need to drag this stuff in. Maybe a technology like ScraperWiki could help?

DavePress podcast 2 – Andrew Beeken

In the second DavePress podcast I chat to Andrew Beeken of the City of Lincoln Council about the new open data site he has just launched, data.lincoln.gov.uk.

[audio:http://media.libsyn.com/media/davepress/DavePressEp2.mp3%5D

If you can’t, or don’t want to, use the flash player, you can download the .mp3 instead or subscribe with iTunes.

If you have any feedback – or volunteer to be a participant in a podcast, please do so in the comments below, or emailpodcast@davepress.net.

For those that want to know, here’s how the podcast is produced.

DavePress podcast 1 – Anthony Zacharzewski

Spurred on by Robert Brook, I’ve decided to give podcasting a try. My podcasts are going to be short – around 10 minutes – chats with interesting people about technology, government, democracy and public services.

Anthony Zacharzewski

Here’s the first one, where I talk to the lovely Anthony Zacharzewski of the Democratic Society about his stuff, including the new TalkIssues site.

[audio:http://media.libsyn.com/media/davepress/DavePressEp1.mp3%5D

If you can’t, or don’t want to, use the flash player, you can download the .mp3 instead or subscribe with iTunes.

If you have any feedback – or volunteer to be a participant in a podcast, please do so in the comments below, or email podcast@davepress.net.

For those that want to know, here’s how the podcast is produced.

Podcasting

I had the pleasure of being asked to be a part of Gov 2.0 radio, a live phone-in podcast about government and the web based in the States. Due to timezone stuff it meant I had to stay up til 2am to take part, but it was well worth it.

Adriel Hampton wrote it up like this:

Collaboration, Innovation and Social Media in Government: Join a great discussion of the Open Government Directive and Twitter, collaboration and ideation in government, with guests Jenn Gustetic from Phase One Consulting Group, Dave Briggs of Learning Pool, and Swimfish CIO John F. Moore and hosts Adriel Hampton, Steve Lunceford and Steve Ressler. More background here.

You can listen to the recording below – I won’t tell you when I’m on because that would spoil the surprise. Besides, I wasn’t particularly coherent, so you’ll no doubt enjoy the other participant’s contributions much more.

[audio:http://davepress.net/wp-content/2010/02/gov2radio.mp3%5D

I really enjoyed doing this, and I think there is something really valuable in audio work. As Roo Reynold’s excellent post proves, it doesn’t need to be hard to produce a decent podcast. I’m tempted to start doing some planning around something similar to Gov 2.0 radio for the UK – if you’d like to be involved, let me know.