Link roundup

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

Crowdsourcing Big Society in South Holland

I’ve written a couple of times about the WordPress based ideas crowdsourcing tool we’ve been working on at Kind of Digital, which is called CiviCrowd. We’re delighted that it’s now being used out in the open by South Holland District Council, to find the ideas people have to improve their local community.

Ideas are entered by users using a simple online form, moderated, and then when published others can comment on them, rate them and share them on their own networks.

Part of the driver for this project is that all councillors in South Holland now have a designated ward budget to spend on local projects. This site is seen as being a key way of getting people to share those ideas in a simple and straightforward way.

There are already a bunch of ideas on the site, and that’s before it has been promoted in the Council newsletter and the local paper – that should be happening in the next couple of weeks.

If there’s anyone else out there that could use a site like this – you know where I am!

Getting crowdsourcing right

Steph has a great post about crowdsourcing in government:

It’s human nature to want to work on your own projects, rather than those imposed upon you. It’s human nature to want to earn recognition, intellectual satisfaction and a good living from your work. So instead of asking civil servants to sift thousands of ideas and assign half a dozen to people around Whitehall to ‘take forward’, why not put proper money behind a few big challenges, and support civil servants, frontline staff and whoever-the-hell-wants-to to band together to spend time and money solving them?

Go and read it – it’s good!

Wisdom of Crowds

I’ve been working on this post – the one you’re reading now – for literally months. Steph has inspired me to get the damn thing finally published. One book I have found really useful is James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, which is well worth a read.

There have been a couple of high profile attempts to crowdsource ideas and opinion recently by central government in the UK, which comes on the back of similar activities in other countries. Neither worked particularly well, and having had the time to ruminate on why that might be, I thought I’d put some ideas out there.

Getting this right is important, not least for those of us that what to see open government progress in this country; participation being one of the three major strands of what open government is.

So what can we learn from Your Freedom and Spending Challenge?

1. Are you asking people to do the right things?

Crowdsourcing in government is used for a number of purposes, but quite often it’s down to getting people to suggest ideas. One of the problems is of course that coming up with ideas is the easy bit – it’s implementing them that’s hard.

But some of the best examples of crowdsourcing on the internet just aren’t this open ended. Indeed, the success of these initiatives tend to be in providing people with small, defined tasks such as:

These can be seen as being ‘mechanical turk’ type activities and as per the quote from Steph above they are examples of not just people being asked their opinions in a one-off fashion, but groups of people working towards a common goal, contributing when and how they feel able.

2. Don’t keep rebuilding the same community

It strikes me, thinking about it, that building a new website, promoting it and getting people to engage with it, every time government wants to ask people stuff isn’t a very efficient way of going about things.

I remember reading Stephen Coleman’s The Internet and Democratic Citizenship and not really agreeing with one of its central premises, that we need an online ‘civic commons’ – a central space for all the internet enabled participation in democracy and government to happen. It just struck me as the sort of thing that government could well be very bad at – some sort of DirectGov for engagement and consultation.

But, then, maybe it does make sense to have the one place where as much of this stuff happens as possible sits. It means people only have to sign up for one site, could get notified of new exercises that might interest them, and so on. It might also provide the scale to enable a full time community manager or two to be appointed, which would help massively with some of the moderation issues that these sites sometimes run into.

3. The role of expertise

One of the big questions around crowdsourcing is the issue of expertise. It’s fine asking Joe Public what he thinks about something, but quite another to expect him to have considered views on what might be esoteric and complicated subjects.

Perhaps this is where making use of existing communities could really come into play. When you are looking to get the views of people who really know what they are talking about, perhaps the best thing to do is to go to where those people are already hanging out and talking about this stuff. For those interested in this approach, the Meet the Communities event should be well worth attending.

4. Quick returns

The Cathedral & the BazaarGoing back to open source software development, one key thing Linus Torvalds, who led the Linux project, did to encourage participation was to ensure there were quick returns from contributors. Eric Raymond, in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, noted that Linux gave contributors the stimulation of being involved in something cool and important and gave fast feedback and results, sometimes more than daily.

It strikes me that  number of attempts at crowdsourcing in government don’t have anywhere near a short enough timescale for feedback. Throwing ideas and contributions into a black hole that a civil servant at some undefined point in the future might take a look at, and might get in touch with you about, isn’t to me a particularly thrilling proposition.

Any more?

So there are my four takeaways for people wanting to run government crowdsourcing exercises. Anyone got any others?

(Before I go, do visit Catherine Howe’s blog, which is full on ruminations on this stuff, as well as hundreds more great book recommendations!)

Bookmarks for April 5th through April 10th

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

  • Social Media Security – "We have found a huge lack of accurate information around security issues and awareness of social media. This website aims to help educate users of social media of the threats, risks and privacy concerns that go with using them."
  • E-government is not a financial cure-all – "Whoever is in charge after 6 May, I expect the drive towards "smarter government" (or whatever catch phrase replaces it) to continue. There are simply no other tools in the box. But whoever is in charge will avidly wish someone had made a bolder start while the going was good."
  • bantApp.com: Bant Diabetes Monitoring App for the iPhone and iPod Touch – Interesting iphone app for diabetes management, via @robertbrook
  • Two models of open innovation – "Based on our recent experience of working on open innovation projects, and also building upon a great paper by Kevin Boudreau and Karim Lakhani, we have concluded that there are two distinct ways of doing open innovation – creating competitive markets or collaborative communities"
  • Let government screw up – "I have the opportunity to speak to groups across government about the benefits, challenges and potential costs of social media. In the face of institutional anxiety, I’ve argued that social media is a positive environment that encourages experimentation. In fact, online users are willing to accept mis-steps and stumbles from government organizati0ns simply because it demonstrates initiative and ambition, if not expertise."
  • Project Spaces: A Format for Surfacing New Projects – home – "The event format I'm calling Project Spaces has emerged from working with various collaborators to facilitate events for communities actively engaged and committed to finding better ways to do things."
  • Can Open Office Escape From Under A Cloud? – "I do see a future for Open Office in the enterprise — one that’s closely tied to integration with collaboration, content management, and business processes and facilitated by the likes of Oracle and IBM."
  • A democratic view of social media behaviours – Interesting action research post from Catherine – plenty to chew on here.
  • Digital exclusion, porn and games – "I wonder if – as with mobile phones – there’s a certain, influential generation that see the technology as being more than just a technology. And instead, a marker for a whole way of life they just haven’t accepted yet."
  • Social media measurement – Great stuff from Stuart Bruce – debunking a few myths and some marketing BS.

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.

Ideas, conversations and artists

As a follow up to my post on the UK .gov blogosphere, a small session was run at the recent govcamp on the state of blogging in the public sector in the UK.

The discussion was an interesting one and Al Reid took down some great notes that cover most of what was said. Pubstrat wrote a great post before the event which summed up most of the stuff we talked about anyway.

Here’s my take: I was wrong to mention blogs. A lot of the resultant discussion in the comments of that post and other chats have focused on blogging, which is of course just the medium. It’s the content I am interested in.

What we seem to lack is an ecosystem of ideas in public services. Discussions about new ways of doing things, how to change the way things are, how ideas get progressed into prototypes and then into actual delivered services or ways of working. Whether this happens on a blog, in a social network, on a wiki or over a cup of tea is neither here nor there.

This ties in with the discussion sparked by Dom on Twitter about the lack of challenge in evidence at the govcamp, and that it was a pretty homogenous group of people in attendance. The question was posed, how do we get everyone else to these events, or at least having these sorts of conversations?

I’ve no idea, frankly.

I believe a couple of things are pretty evident though:

  • Government at all levels has to improve its attitiude to ideas and thus to innovation
  • Structures and processes will help the behaviour required for an ideas ecosystem become embedded and accepted
  • People within organisations have to start getting better at talking to each other for any of this to actually work

The unconference format works very nicely in providing the space for people to have conversations about stuff. The blank canvas that is the agenda can be daunting, but with the right preparation, everyone can arrive at the event primed and ready to say things. I’m having chats with Jeremy and others about how this might be applied to individual organisations. Watch this space.

All of this ties in with what I started to think about in several post over the last couple of months, which seems to be coalescing in my mind around the notion of learning organisations – familiar to anyone that has read the work of Peter Senge but which for me focuses on the ability for organisations to have meaningful conversations, both internally and externally, and to have a grown up attitude to change and new ideas.

I’ll be talking about this on Thursday at the Cllr.10 event, with some focus on the shift in leadership that this stuff necessitates.

Also worth reading around these ideas is the work Lloyd Davis is doing, as social artist in residence at the Centre for Creative Collaboration. David Wilcox has covered social artistry before too. I’m not sure we’ll ever see civil servants or local government officers with that job title anytime soon, but the skills of convening and facilitation are vital for anyone who wants to succeed within a learning organisation.

The web is fundamental to the development of this thinking and the conversations around it. Firstly, because the web is the domain where the ideas are being kicked about and refined. Secondly, because these ideas are the by-products of using the web and social tools. As I keep saying these days, what makes social software interesting is not the software, but the implications of using it.

How I write

I thought it might be useful to offer a sneaky-peak into my processes for writing this blog. After all, given that I am trying to encourage others to do the same, it’s probably only fair that I let people know how I do it.

Obviously, it’s worth pointing out here that this works for me, and it might not for you. Also, there are probably better ways of going about it. But since I started blogging back in 2004, I’ve got into the habit of working this way, and it seems to produce a fairly steady flow of content for me.

Standing on the shoulders…

For inspiration, I spend a bit of time in Google Reader, checking out what other people are saying, Likewise with Twitter, and Delicious. I’m not necessarily hunting for things to write about, but generally imbibing information and ideas and squaring them with whatever I’m thinking about at the time. Be catholic with your reading habits – don’t just limit yourself to reading blogs in and around your own sector, but find out what people are saying elsewhere. Consider how what they write about can be applied to your interests.

Type first, think later

I spend quite a bit of time writing posts that will never see the light of day. There’s no editing at the ideas stage. Sometimes I only have a sentence, or a whiff of a concept for a post, but I make sure it’s recorded somewhere. My preference is for these to be draft posts within WordPress, but sometimes that isn’t possible, so I’ll use another tool like Evernote, or even just a text editor. I’ll usually aim to get those posts into WordPress ASAP though.

The point is that I very, very rarely sit down and write a post from beginning to end, without having a good think about it first.

So, I usually have up to ten draft posts in WordPress at any one time. I spend quite a bit of time just staring at them, then I read other things, see related content online and how I can work that into the post. Sometimes this changes what the post is about, and the original theme is lost entirely, or reduced to a footnote. What often happens is that I’ll combine two or three of the posts I have in draft to try and produce something a bit more meaty.

Go ugly early

I’ll often hit publish on posts when I’m not entirely happy with them, when the thinking is half-baked or I have a sneaking suspicion I’ve got something totally wrong. I usually get corrected in the comments, or people add stuff to help me make what I’m saying make sense. I must admit, though, that it takes a bit more nerve that usual to do this as it risks exposing me as the fraud I really am.

Your tips

So that’s a quick run through of my writing process. What tips do you have for any budding bloggers?