What I’ve been reading

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

You can find all my bookmarks on Pinboard.

Micro-participation at ShropCamp

Continuing my current obsession with micro-participation, I ran a session on the subject at yesterday’s excellent ShropCamp.

Basically I chatted through what micro-participation is and what it tries to achieve, where it came from etc. Then I gave some examples of it in action, and after that asked for some ideas and thoughts from the floor.

Here are the slides:

I’m really taken with this idea, as you can probably tell, and am starting up a project space at microparticipation.com to explore it more fully.

We’re going to be developing the site to be a resource in terms of examples and case studies in micro-participation, discussions about the potential and the issues involved, but also try and get people’s ideas for both online and offline micro-participation.

I’d also really like to find a way of making some of those things happen, by finding organisations to work with.

So if you’re interested in taking this forward, do sign up for updates from the new site!

More on micro-participation

There was an interesting response to my post on micro-participation, in a number of spaces – which goes to show the value in seeding your content on sites other than your own!

The most active conversation was on GovLoop where the concept of micro-participation seemed to strike a chord with many people. Even better, it uncovered the work of Jennifer Cowley at Ohio University, who has been working on micro-participation for a little while.

Here’s a slidedeck from Jennifer about using micro-participation in planning.

Here’s a video of Jennifer talking about micro-participation:

Some examples of micro-participation were also shared:

Not all these examples fit exactly with what I had in mind for micro-participation. Several fall into the reporting category – a bit like FixMyStreet. This is important, but I was thinking about getting people involved in democratic and government processes at a slightly more engaged level.

In other words, this should be more than just pot holes.

Over on the Communities of Practice (sign in required), some real-life concerns and issues were shared.

Adrian Short shared the example of Speak out Sutton, and also challenged me to come up with some concrete proposals. Fair enough, though I try to avoid specifics on this blog 😉

Dawn Iverson provides some great pointers to increase participation and overcoming barriers:

1) Make a specific, small call to action. Start with asking people to do something very small like a litter picking day at the local park or distributing leaflets locally. Maybe provide tea and biscuits afterwards.

2) Make the call to action in a number of ways. Knock on peoples doors during daylight hours, deliver leaflets, contact the local PCSO and either ask them to come along when knocking on doors to allay fears, or ask if they can send out your ‘call to action’ in their community email messages. Put information on the local council website, the Parish council website, the local Volunteer Centre website.

3) Have a small number of people who can be the face of community involvement. This will make those newly involved feel like they have a connection. Those who knock on doors / have their photos on the leaflets should be the people there to welcome new volunteers when they do respond to your call for action.

4) Once a volunteer feels connected to the community, give them more responsibility and ensure that their ideas are taken further.

5) Local councils / NHS services could identify plenty of people who would be fantastic involving themselves with local services. These are the people who send frequent complaints, the people who send thank you notes, the people who have made big changes in their lives, those who are lonely and don’t know anybody in their community.

There also need to be some ‘calls to action’ that can involve those with busy family lives. This could be asking someone to proofread a webpage, take and upload pictures of their local community, referee at a local under 13s football match, organise a fundraising event for mums and daughters. There’s a lot that could be done, but unfortunately it does need someone to coordinate this type of thing. Hopefully the new Community Organisers will be that person 🙂

Finally, going back to the GovLoop discussion, some attempts were made to define what is meant by micro-participation. Mine was “Providing a means for citizens to interact with democratic and government processes at a time, in a place and in an medium that suits them.”

I think I prefer Jennifer’s much simpler: “participation at the convenience of participants.”

Anyway, I’m pleased this has sparked interest in a few folk. I’m going to plug away developing some ideas and see where it ends up.

The need for micro-participation

A theme I’ve been returning to on a regular basis in the talks I’ve been giving lately has been about the need for government to make participation easier.

I’ve blogged in my usual half-assed manner about the participation deficit before, and it strikes me that this is an important issue that is both not going away and also is probably going to get worse.

I tend to highlight myself as an example of the problem here, in that despite being one of the very few people in the world who actually find government interesting, I never actually engage myself. I’ve not been to a council meeting, responded to a survey or questionnaire, and never given feedback through another route.

Why is this? It’s not that I’m lazy (keep quiet at the back), nor that I don’t care. It’s mainly that the instruments of local democracy just don’t fit in with my lifestyle.

The most obvious culprit here is the meeting. It strikes me that the dominance of meetings pretty much means that anyone with a family and a job (or perhaps even just one of those) is excluded from the process.

Read the boy a story before bed time, or go to the town hall to talk about a planning application? Not a difficult choice, but the answer means that participation is always going to be low.

Perhaps there’s an opportunity here to learn from the micro-volunteering that is becoming increasingly popular. An easy, quick way to get involved in civic activity that fits into people’s lives the way they are lived now, not fifty years ago.

After all, I may not be able to give up two (or more!) hours of an evening to attend a council meeting, but I’m sat in front of a computer almost all day, and could easily take 15 minutes or longer out to get involved, perhaps by answering some questions, providing ideas, or identifying problems.

Even better, with a smartphone and a bit of geo-tagging, why not tell me how I can contribute from exactly where I am?

Getting involved and participating shouldn’t be a chore. As I mentioned in my post about councillors, we need more people doing less, rather than the situation we have now where only a few people do far too much.

I don’t think this needs massive upheaval, or some kind of revolution in local democracy (although that might be nice). A bit of tinkering around the edges would, I’m sure, go a long way.

Distraction

Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian:

The biggest complaint, in both my Twitter sample and the expert essays, was about the quality of thinking in the online era. What the internet has done, say the dissenters, is damage our ability to concentrate for sustained periods. Being connected meant being constantly tempted to look away, to hop from the text in front of you to another, newer one. One tweeter replied that he now thought “about more things for shorter amounts of time. It’s like ADHD.” Anyone who has Tweetdeck fitted on their desktop, chirruping like a toddler tapping you on the shoulder urging you to come and play, will know what he means.

This, the worriers fear, is not just irritating; it might even damage our civilisation. How capable will people be of creating great works if they are constantly interrupted, even when alone? “What the net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation,” angsts Nicholas Carr, who believes the internet is steering us toward “the shallows”.

Jeff Jarvis responds:

It is ever thus. Think back to the early days of TV and cable: My God, with so much to watch, will be ever get anything done? The exact same argument can be made—indeed, one wishes it were made—about books: With so many of them unread, how can we possibly ever do anything else? But, of course, we do.

Twitter addiction shall pass. Have faith—faith in your fellow man and woman. I was busy doing other things yesterday, important things, and so I pretty much did not tweet. I survived without it. So, I’m depressed to say, did all of you without me. I just wrote in my book that Twitter indeed created a distraction to writing the book, as I was tempted by the siren call of the conversation that never ends. But it also helped with my writing that I always had ready researchers and editors, friends willing to help when I got stuck or needed inspiration.

The net delusion

The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov looks like it will be useful and interesting reading for those interested in the internet and its effects on politics and democracy, providing something of an alternative (thanks to Dom for the wording advice) view.

From The Observer‘s review:

Morozov, a young Belarusian-born writer and researcher now based in the US, doesn’t mince his words. But The Net Delusion is considerably more than an assault on political rhetoric; for, it argues, behind many of the fine words recently spoken in praise of technology lies a combination of utopianism and ignorance that grossly misrepresents the internet’s political role and potentials. Unless we are very careful, he suggests, the democratising power of new media will in fact bring not democracy and freedom, but the entrenchment of authoritarian regimes.

I’ve ordered the book for my Kindle and will report back once I get round to reading it.

What is also very tempting is that Morozov will be speaking at the RSA on the 20th January, on the topic of ‘The Future of WikiLeaks’ (thanks to Catherine Howe for the tip off).

Here’s the blurb:

Morozov believes that WikiLeaks currently stands at a crossroads: one route ahead would see a radical global network systematically challenging those in power – governments and companies alike – just for the sake of undermining “the system”. The current quest for transparency could soon become an exercise in anger, one leak at a time.

Alternatively, WikiLeaks could continue moving in the more sensible direction that, in some ways, it is already on: collaborating with traditional media, redacting sensitive files, and offering those in a position to know about potential victims of releases the chance to vet the data.

It is a choice between WikiLeaks becoming a new Red Brigade, or a new Transparency International. And, argues Morozov, forcing Mr Assange to go down the former route would have far more disastrous implications for American interests than anything revealed by “cable-gate”.

I’d love to attend and hopefully my schedule will allow it!

Themes for 2011

2010 has been an interesting year for the internet. Where will 2011 take us? Here’s a slightly apocalyptic set of thoughts.

Wikileaks, privacy and security

Anybody who has thought for even a moment about the implications of the internet and the web will have known that something like Wikileaks was always going to happen. It was a case of when, not if.

What Wikileaks tells us is that the internet makes information free – as in speech, not necessarily as in beer. When the tools for publishing content to a worldwide audience are free, and the channels for promoting it as fast and efficient as the likes of Twitter and Facebook, it becomes pretty clear that something significant has changed.

As John Naughton wrote recently,

The only rational attitude to online systems is cautious scepticism about their security.

It forces us to question how we define security and privacy online. My take is to assume you have none, and proceed on that basis.

Culture

A further theme, in addition to questions about security, privacy and identity will be culture and the sociological effects of the information revolution.

There are a couple of elements to this. One is the idea of cloud culture, which Charles Leadbeater explored in his pamphlet. The other is along the lines of Nick Carr’s book The Shallows, based on his idea that Google is making us stupid.

I already outsource an awful lot of my memory to the internet. My dad asked me the other day if I was ok with some plans we’d arranged. I didn’t know what he was talking about. “But I emailed you about it the other day!” he exclaimed. Because I had an email, I’d forgotten all the detail within it.

Is this any different to outsourcing arithmetic to pocket calculators? I’m not sure. But when the cloud could disappear at any time, it’s good to have a backup of your online memory somewhere.

Cloud culture will continue to have an increasing role in our lives, whether we notice or not. Books are moving to the cloud, whether we read them on Kindles, phones or tablets. Services like Spotify mean we don’t even bother downloading music tracks any more.

Where next? Particular set in focus next to the cuts, where do libraries and museums fit into all of this? Can they be moved into the cloud? Sure, seeing a painting or a sculpture in real life is a better experience than seeing it on a screen, but is it so much better that people will pay for it? How do we feel about our cultural heritage being managed and curated by Amazon, Google and Apple rather than governments or charities?

It ties in neatly with one of my favourite, if very short, bits of writing about the internet and culture by the late Gordon Burn, in his book Born Yesterday:

…an aggregation of fragments is the only kind of whole we have now.

(This post gives a little more context.) Are we really only collections of shards of personality and culture? Does it matter? Even if it doesn’t, it’s good to be aware of what is happening to us.

Relevance

The cuts brings me onto my third and final theme. What do the cuts and the internet have in common? They question relevance. In a world of instant publishing, limitless availability of content and always-on connectivity, and where budgets will be cut wherever not cutting them cannot be justified, how do you stay relevant?

The circle closes here, because the Wikileaks story is a great example of how the internet reduces the cost of the distribution of information to zero, which has a significant impact on those organisations which depend on information distribution as their raison d’être.

Think of newspapers, television, and record labels. They thought they made news, programmes and music. Actually, they were in the logistics business.

The same is true of a number of roles and functions within public services, who will see a twinned and overlapping attack as a result of both the internet and the cuts. If the internet can do what you do cheaper, why are you needed?

To stay relevant, in 2011 public servants will need to reassess what they do and why they do it. Learning and Development people, for example, might currently spend a proportion of their time training people – but why, when all the information anyone needs is online? Why do we need communications professionals, when, with the tools at our fingertips, we are all communicators now?

The same could be said for an awful lot of roles within councils and other organisations. It’s going to be up to individuals to start defining their relevance over the next few months, to become facilitators and enablers, not merely doers.

Those that successfully figure this one out will come out on top, I think.

Bookmarks for October 30th through December 10th

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.

Mostly offline

I’ve moved house, and the new one won’t be connected to the internets until Thursday.

So I won’t be doing much until then!

Normal service resumed next week though.

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.