Bookmarks for January 27th through February 19th

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.

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.

CityCamp London

Dominic and his team at FutureGov did a fabulous job of running CityCamp London this weekend.

Sadly I could only make Friday afternoon’s ‘stimulate’ session, which saw a roomful of people at the RSA get together to listen to some great talks about cities, technology and design.

But following the tweets over the weekend for the ‘participate’ and ‘collaborate’ sessions it seems like there was an incredible amount of energy and desire to improve things. It will be fascinating to see what projects emerge from the event.

I must say, my thoughts on Friday were focused around the idea of place, and how places work as systems. I’ve never lived in a city – except on a part time basis when at University – and so I couldn’t help but wonder how an event based around a village, or a market town, would turn out.

Cities, especially vast ones like London, are so big, and so complicated, that they are very difficult to fix, I think. However, whilst villages and towns are obviously on a smaller scale, they also lack the numbers of people wanting to be involved, and having the skills needed to make stuff happen.

This is probably something I need to think about a bit more, and will return to when I have something half-sensible to say.

Anyway, I made some notes during Matt Jones of Berg’s presentation. They are a mixture of things he said, things I wanted to look up and my own thoughts. I’ve pasted them in below the video of Matt’s talk and I will leave you to decide how useful they are.

Matt Jones, Design Director, Berg from aquila on Vimeo.

  • Networked urbanism ? Ruralism?
  • What about villagecamp or towncamp?
  • How do we improve where we live and how does the Internet as a platform support that?
  • Unintended consequences of complex system design. Build it and they come, and you didn’t build big enough.
  • Never waste a good crisis.
  • City (place?) as a system.
  • Use of a system does not equal need for the system.
  • How much is a town or a village a system? Are they multiple systems or one big one? How can the systems be plotted and improved?
  • Government is just a part of these systems.
  • Where does open government fit in? Government must be more open to be an effective part of the system.
  • Data is not truth.
  • The works, Kate ascher (book)
  • Always design a thing thinking about it in it’s next largest context.
  • Shirky – situated software. Look it up. Also the nearlynet.
  • Synecdoche. The part that represents the whole.
  • Open data makes information Hunan scale. Tom Armitage.
  • Hertzian Times (book)
  • Doorway – simon unwin. Porch and doorways – interfaces between public and private.