Cameron pledges to free our data

David Cameron has taken the Conservatives’ promises on availability of public data a few steps further, in principle at least, in a speech at Imperial College on taking ‘broken politics’ into the ‘post-bureaucratic age’.
‘In Britain today, there are over 100,000 public bodies producing a huge amount of information,’ he said; ‘Most of this information is kept locked up by the state. And what is published is mostly released in formats that mean the information can’t be searched or used with other applications… This stands in the way of accountability.’ Now I’m still not convinced that there’s that much deliberate, conscious locking-up of data; but certainly, the formats in which that data is eventually made available often has the same end result.
OK, so we’re broadly agreed on the problem… what’s the solution, Dave?

We’re going to set this data free. In the first year of the next Conservative Government, we will find the most useful information in twenty different areas ranging from information about the NHS to information about schools and road traffic and publish it so people can use it. This information will be published proactively and regularly – and in a standardised format so that it can be ‘mashed up’ and interacted with.
What’s more, because there is no complete list that can tell us exactly what data the government collects, we will create a new ‘right to data’ so that further datasets can be requested by the public. By harnessing the wisdom of the crowd, we can find out what information individuals think will be important in holding the state to account. And to avoid bureaucrats blocking these requests, we will introduce a rule that any request will be successful unless it can be proved that it would lead to overwhelming costs or demonstrable personal privacy or national security concerns.
If we are serious about helping people exert more power over the state, we need to give them the information to do it. And as part of that process, we will review the role of the Information Commissioner to make sure that it is designed to maximise political accountability in our country.

Now don’t get me wrong here, it’s great to have Cameron’s explicit sign-up to the principle of data freedom, standardised formats, the presumed right of availability, and a 12-month timeframe. But it’s not really anything that the other major parties aren’t already talking about – and in the case of the current government, bringing in the Big Guns to actually do something about. OPSI’s data unlocking service, for example, is nearly a year old, and effectively answers the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ idea. Now it hasn’t been a huge hit… but the principle is already established.
And then there’s his unfortunate choice of public sector jobs as an example of what they might do:

Today, many central government and quango job adverts are placed in a select few newspapers. Some national, some regional. Some daily, some weekly. But all of them in a variety of different publications – meaning it’s almost impossible to find out how many vacancies there are across the public sector, what kind of salaries are being offered, how these vary from public sector body to public sector body and whether functions are being duplicated. Remember this is your money being put forward to give someone a job – and you have little way of finding out why, what for and for how much. Now imagine if they were all published online and in a standardised way. Not only could you find out about vacancies for yourself, you could cross-reference what jobs are on offer and make sure your money is being put to proper use.

Er, isn’t Mr C aware of the recently-upgraded Civil Service Jobs website – with its API, allowing individuals and commercial companies to access the data in a standardised format (XML plus a bit of RDF), and republish it freely? The Tories have talked about online job ads since December 2006; maybe it’s time they updated their spiel.
So what does today’s pledge boil down to? On one level it’s just headline-grabbing, bandwagon-jumping, government-bashing, policy-reannouncing rhetoric. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If all the work is going on already, but it isn’t well enough known, or isn’t proving as effective as it could/should be,  maybe we should be welcoming any headlines the subject manages to grab. And if Cameron’s Conservatives do take power at the next election, and truly believe in what was said today, it would be the easy fulfilment of a campaign promise to yank these initiatives out of their quiet beta periods and into the limelight.

Cameron's online promises

The explicit references to the internet in David Cameron’s big speech on ‘fixing broken politics’ this morning don’t come until the end. All MPs’ expenses to be published online; the same will go for ‘all other public servants earning over £150,000’. An Obama-esque pledge to put all national spending over £25,000 online. A commitment to ‘publish all Parliamentary information online in an open-source format’ (whatever that means). An end to the ‘ridiculous ban on parliamentary proceedings being uploaded to YouTube’. All good, on the face of it.
But the underlying message throughout the speech, empowerment of the individual, is really only a reflection of the changes being brought about by the internet revolution. We expect to be able to do things now, in our daily lives, which seemed like science-fiction only a few years ago. It’s really not that long ago that ’28 days for delivery’ was a standard; now we get fidgety if our delivery isn’t here within 2 or 3 days. Your mobile phone has instant access to every fact in the world, within seconds.
So Cameron’s talk of ‘giving people the power to work collectively with their peers to solve common problems’ isn’t really the articulation of a great vision: it’s a reflection of a reality that’s already with (many of) us. Likewise, transparency isn’t really something within his gift. ‘At the length, truth will out,’ Shakespeare wrote as far back as 1600; it’s just that these days, it gets out a heck of a lot quicker.
Having said all that, there are some parts of the speech which make me feel a little uncomfortable. I find it difficult to hear an Old Etonian and Oxbridge-graduate speaking up for ordinary people feeling ‘deprived of opportunities to shape the world around them, and at the mercy of powerful elites that preside over them’. And similarly, when he says ‘we rage at our political system because we feel it is self-serving’, I find my eyebrows raising at the use of the word ‘we’. (A bit like when Five Live presenters talk about ‘the media’ in the third person.)
But the reality is, this is the man who currently seems most likely to be running the country in a year’s time. The power will be in his hands. And whether he’s doing it by choice, or just recognising the way the wind is blowing, he’s talking about diluting that power, boosting transparency, and embracing the web. We like.

Tory Facebook campaign won few Friends

ConservativeHome blogger Tim Montgomerie posted a damning article over the weekend, condemning ‘waste, over-spending and poor revenue strategies’ at Conservative central office. One particular remark jumps out: ‘The Tory leadership did not fix the party’s finances during the good economic times and are now facing very difficult decisions as a consequence.’ Sound familiar?
Tim’s piece provides some inside intelligence about the success, or otherwise, of the big ‘be our friend‘ campaign earlier this year. ‘£500,000 was spent on newspaper and internet adverts earlier this year to launch a ‘Friends of the Conservatives’ scheme. Few Friends have been recruited and many believe that that money could have been much better spent. […] CCHQ are repressing the publication of membership data but it is feared that numbers have fallen by at least 17,000. I’ve tried raising these issues privately,’ he says subsequently in the comments, ‘but to zero effect.’
Elsewhere in the comments, one newly recruited supporter tells of his unpleasant experience when he tried to get involved locally; and when he signed up for the ‘friend’ scheme: ‘I got an email in reply thanking me for volunteering. Since then, nothing, zip, zilch, b*gger all. Not even an invitation to contribute to party funds.’
I’ve been trying to think of a clever conclusion – but, not for the first time, I can’t get past the big number. Half a million quid spent midway between general elections, ‘few recruits’, and a continuing overall fall in membership… at a time when forming the next government seemed (past tense, perhaps) a certainty?
Oh yeah… and it probably would have been wise for the Tories to ensure the various links to the Friendship campaign were properly redirected when they launched their new website. All the links I graciously gave them, even to key pages like ‘Get involved’, are now returning 404 errors.

Cameron goes direct

The Tories‘ latest engagement initiative, Cameron Direct takes its ‘town hall meeting’ roadshow to a Plymouth primary school tonight. The event will be broadcast live, and then ‘on demand’, in video via the UK-based It also looks like they’ll be liveblogging the event through, guess what, CoverItLive. I’m not entirely sure it’s worth doing both, unless they’re planning on involving the liveblog-watchers in the proceedings somehow..? Proceedings start at 6.30pm, and should be done in time for kick-off in tonight’s football.
Here’s the recording of last week’s event in Truro. Whether you like Cameron or not, you have to admit he’s very good at this sort of thing.

Innovation, innovation, innovation

Over at the Telegraph, Mick Fealty rightly reflects on the ‘fascinating confluence of ideas cascading into the body politic at the moment’, with both right and left suddenly making an issue of innovation, open source, and all that good stuff. The latest contribution was David Cameron’s speech at NESTA this morning:

Indeed, the odd thing about the Government’s innovation policy is how un-innovative it is. More spending, more state control, more reliance on the levers of bureaucratic intervention. The chapter on public sector innovation in Government’s “science innovation” document, has this as its centrepiece: the proposal to create a “Whitehall Hub for Innovation”. Something about that doesn’t ring true. Whitehall and innovation don’t go together, for the simple reason that innovation is the product of many heads not a few, and free thinking not state control.
We accept that innovation requires a culture of risk-taking, of trial and error, of flexibility in thinking and often of collaborative effort. So I have also asked Adam Afriyie to identify ways a Conservative government could tackle the corrosive sense of risk-aversion which holds back innovation within our society.

To be fair, it’s been an uplifting week in terms of online innovation, across the political divide(s). The sudden rush into Twitter – by No10, and (apparently) by both major parties – isn’t a big deal in terms of audience numbers, but it’s certainly symbolic: a recognition that there’s clearly something interesting going on, and a readiness to just get stuck in.
I’m hoping that the weekend’s Progressive Governance summit microsite, which I’m constructing on No10’s behalf, can take that momentum forward. We’re throwing as many 2.0 tricks into the mix as we can: some will undoubtedly work better than others. (And yes, as Guido helpfully notes, we’re cutting it fine. We know.)
But the value of the social connections fostered by blogs and Twitter is already revealing itself. Last night I talked about my search for a live blogging / chat solution. Paul Bradshaw suggested CoverItLive, a service I hadn’t seen before. I played around with it, and it looked great. But I wanted to see what others thought – so I threw out a plea for assistance on Twitter. Within a couple of minutes, I had two friends in the ‘chatroom’ with me, giving the product a proper test. It passed – and it’s looking like we’re going to use it on Saturday morning to ‘live blog’ the summit’s proceedings. This stuff works.

No10 man's blog raised at PMQs

With civil servants’ blogging habits such a hot topic, I can’t avoid mentioning the reference casually dropped into PMQs by David Cameron this afternoon.

There is a new strategist, a man called David Muir. Yes, I have done a bit of research—he is the chief strategist and on the internet he has listed his favourite book. It is called—[Interruption.] Is his favourite book not the following? It is called “The unstoppable power of leaderless organisations”. If the Prime Minister cannot make a decision, and if he cannot run his office, why does anyone wonder why he cannot run the country?

How could Cameron possibly have uncovered this? Well, David Muir included the book on a list of ‘books I really like’, in the sidebar of his Typepad blog… hastily password-protected upon the announcement of his appointment, but still visible via Google’s cache.
The FT’s Westminster blog calls it a ‘nice bit of point scoring’ – and wonders how the book’s message of decentralisation squares with the perception of a Stalinist Prime Minister. How indeed. Meanwhile of course, Clay Shirky – in town to promote his new book, ‘Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations‘ – is being invited round to tea by Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson. There’s a thread here.

Cameron's online challenge

David Cameron takes his ‘be my friend’ campaign to the Guardian’s Comment Is Free this morning, with a piece about the internet ‘transforming our political culture’, and how young people are more political than ever – just not via the old-style channel of political parties. As I noted last week, he’s presenting this new concept of being a ‘friend of the Tories’ as membership-lite:

We understand that for many, the idea of signing up to a party as a full “member” doesn’t fit with what they want. For example, they might support us on some issues, but not others. By becoming a “friend”, they can campaign for action on what they really care about.

I’m still to be convinced: it’s still just party membership, albeit with fewer strings. But the most interesting aspect of the article is its final paragraph, a naked challenge to the PM:

I don’t think Gordon Brown understands the changes that are happening in our world. He’s still too attached to the old politics – where power and decision-making lies in the hands of a few at the very top. My generation, however, instinctively understands these changes. And I’m proud that it’s the Conservative party that is leading the way.

And whether you like or dislike him and his party, you have to agree with that statement. Over on the red side, what’s Labourhome’s top story?

In a move brokered by Amicus Unite Deputy General Secretary Tony Dubbins, the Grassroots Alliance has agreed to back Mike Griffiths for General Secretary, having secured the withdrawal of “wildcard” left-wing NEC candidate John Wiseman, the Labour candidate in Westmoreland & Lonsdale.

I feel engaged already.

Cameron calls for data standards

Of all the topics I might have expected David Cameron to speak in favour of, standardised data formats was not top of the list. So I’m grateful to Nick Booth for pointing to Cameron’s speech last Friday to the Conservative Councillors’ Association.

At the moment, local government bodies must provide the public with information about the services they provide, what goes on in council meetings and how councillors have voted on specific issues. But the information isn’t published in a standardised way. It’s impossible for the public, charities or private companies to effectively collate this data, compare and contrast your performance and hold you to account. That’s why the Government relies on expensive and bureaucratic schemes to try and hold local government to account.
We will turn that approach on its head. We will require local authorities to publish this information – about the services they provide, council meetings and how councillors vote – online and in a standardised format. That way, it can be collected and used by the public and third party groups.

A very timely call, especially in the light of discussions last week about Harry’s consultations site (some of which, I’m told, he’s updating manually?!). I particularly like the way Cameron ties this into the tangible benefits for councillors themselves, removing the need for so many performance measurement exercises.
I’ve had some dealings in this field, particularly during my time with National Statistics. And I’m afraid it’s going to be much, much more difficult than Cameron makes it sound. Too many legacy systems, a chaotic approach to statistical geography, and (frankly) too much opposition from statisticians. Very few statisticians appreciate why they do what they do; they just do it. The work takes on an almost monastic purity. They don’t trust mere mortals – media included – to represent it properly. I was one of a management team hired to drive a culture change in that regard. Our success was limited.
Cameron’s speech focuses on TheyWorkForYou as a role model for data reprocessing; but I’m not sure the comparison holds up too well. A database of numbers would be much more difficult and more sensitive than the absolutes of Hansard: who said what (subject to correction, of course), and who voted how. Realistically we need to get to greater standardisation of process first: starting with defining consistent geographic reasons allowing sensible comparisons over time.
And besides, we haven’t done a great job of producing standardised data in RSS format, one of the most simple and straightforward data standards out there.

Tories need friends

I’m genuinely surprised to see the Tories’ new Facebook-targeted viral video. It’s David Cameron, sitting in a drab – in the Commons, judging by the furniture? he says ‘Whitehall’ – office. Then it’s Jimmy Cliff. Then it’s flashy animations with a string of familiar electoral promises, some more substantial and quantifiable than others. Although having just watched it, I can’t actually remember any of them.
As Sky’s Jonathan Levy notes, Obama it ain’t. Nor is it Webcameron (although I note there’s a ‘DVD extra’-esque background clip on Webcameron). It feels more like an old-style Party Political Broadcast… one of those ones which tries too hard.
Two key words jump out at you. ‘Change’ – I make it 11 uses of the word (or a close derivation thereof) in 90 seconds, plus a couple of ‘different’s. Remind you of anyone? Then, in the final second – ‘donate’. This new entry-level ‘Friend Of’ membership is clearly the new Big Idea:

Donate as much or as little as you like and help us campaign for the change people really want. You’ll receive a weekly newsletter, information about getting involved in the local community, and access to our new Affinity Programme.

The use of the word ‘friend’, with a ‘Facebook exclusive’ (!) launch for the video, is not accidental. But it’s still an invitation to align yourself with a specific political party: a form to fill in on their website, an explicit – and crucially, un-retractable – declaration of Party Political support. Simple Facebook friendship, on the other hand, would leave me in control; would keep my details as confidential as I want them to be; and would still offer the same ‘engagement’ opportunity.
The Tories have done so much right in the new media space lately, making this all the more curious. I’ll be watching with interest. But no matter how much Cameron’s approach appeals to me – and I’ll admit, I like a lot of it – I won’t be signing up as a formal ‘friend’. And I suspect, as a politically-literate father in his mid-30s running his own business, I’m precisely the sort of person this is aimed at.