All so familiar in Oslo

If I take one thing home from my trip to Oslo, it’s the fact that we’re all seeing the same opportunities, and facing the same hurdles. Today’s day-long seminar on innovation in and around government kept coming back to freeing up public data – oh, including maps. Sound familiar, anyone?
The opening session was Hakon Wium Lie, CTO of Opera (and the guy who invented CSS), making the case for freeing up taxpayer-funded data. As it was in Norwegian, I didn’t get much of it: thankfully, it was essentially the same content covered in this article (complete with Google translation).
I talked about the UK experience of openness, open source and consultation: lots about WordPress, Commentariat and activism – familiar stuff to readers of this blog. With the Smarter Government paper on Monday, all the social media activity around Copenhagen, and the Tories’ forced commentability on the leaked IT strategy, I wasn’t short of timely examples!
Then it was Nikki Timmermans from the Netherlands, talking about their education ministry-backed Digital Pioneers fund which has supported 150 projects since 2002. I was particularly taken by one particular project they funded: effectively a ‘dating service’ for their MPs… by which I mean, it tries to match you with MPs who share your interests, based on voting behaviour, beliefs and background, even favourite football team. It’s an interesting challenge to the idea that the MP who best represents you is the one for the patch of your land where you go to bed each night. I wonder if it’s something we could put together in the UK?
The final presentation was by Olav Anders Ovrebo. It was in Norwegian. I didn’t get much of it. But he works for this website which is WordPress based. So clearly he knows his stuff. 🙂
After a (really very nice) sandwich lunch, we broke up into small groups for discussion. I couldn’t help feeling guilty, forcing the groups I joined to speak English; but they all coped much better than if I’d been asked to cope in Norwegian, and were too polite to complain.
Many thanks to Bente Kalsnes of social platform Origo for inviting me to participate. I hope the examples and experience I brought were useful; and I’m certainly taking away plenty of food for thought myself.

Such warmth in the snow

Pic by Andrew Lewin - (Creative Commons)

If there’s one lesson to draw from the unveiling of Directgov’s experimental School Closures site, it’s the sheer goodwill of the community towards them.
Quick précis for those who missed any of it: at 11.50pm on Sunday night, Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson publicly throws down a gauntlet. With the country facing snowy armageddon, could Directgov change their homepage to the only information people would care about – namely, ‘a host of travel info feeds and up to date advice’? A domain gets purchased before dawn, and within 24 (ish) hours, a School Closures mashup site is live. Happy Minister.
The site is, in effect, a dump of Directgov’s own Schools Finder data, uploaded into a Drupal CMS, with each school getting its own page; users are invited to find their local school(s) via a postcode or town name search, and then comment (blog-style) on whether the schools are open or not. It’s been put online using a domain, obtained from the FreeDNS service – presumably to get round the procurement process (and, one has to assume, the Web Rationalisation people). The precedents are duly noted. 😉
It’s really only a ‘proof of concept’ build. As commenters on the new Directgov blog have noted, we’re several significant steps – and a lot of public interaction – away from having a breakthrough service here. But just look around the web at the excitement and encouragement generated by the move. Harry Metcalfe, for example, recognises the same weaknesses I do, and yet still concludes:

It’s pretty rough around the edges: there doesn’t seem to be much RSS support, and there’s no access to the underlying data, and — well — it doesn’t tell you whether your school is closed… but it is still useful, and it’s very impressive that it appeared so quickly, and with such little prompting. Kudos to all involved — this is a fantastic and very encouraging start.

I don’t see this site ever being (properly) finished, certainly not in its current form. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if it can (ever) tell me whether my local schools are actually open or not. But that wasn’t the point: as Brian Hoadley puts it in the blog post’s comments – ‘This prototype was the first in a series of efforts to create a process around which we can develop rapid ideas.’ (Followed up later by Paul Clarke: ‘its existence demonstrates an attitude, not a magic solution to a very difficult information challenge.’)
It was a concrete fulfilment of the principles Paul Clarke described at the weekend’s Barcamp, proof that it wasn’t just talk. Proof – to itself – that government can actually do this sort of thing. And just as importantly, it has proven how much we, the wider web community, have been longing to see this happen.

Technology, Innovation and Government Reform

In case you miss it in all the festivities… here’s a video posted by the incoming Obama administration on the site, introducing us to the Technology, Innovation and Government Reform (aka ‘Tigger’) team.
Some of the names might be familiar: Vivek Kundra, for example, is the guy who swapped Microsoft Office for Google Docs on the District of Columbia’s 38,000 desktops. Watch the video, and recognise the soundbites: ‘process has trumped outcome’… ‘government is way, way behind in terms of how it disseminates information, how it interacts with its citizens’… ‘mashing up data’… yeah yeah, we’ve heard all this before. Many of us have said it before, ourselves.
Except that these guys are in power now.
Technology, innovation and government reform… in that order. Sadly, of course, it’s only to give a cool acronym. But hey, we can dream.

New Whitehall innovation hub

There’s nothing explicitly technological in the announcement today by the National School of Government that ‘the Sunningdale Institute has established an Innovation Hub to develop know-how on stimulating and supporting innovation in government and the public services’ – as announced in the DIUS Innovation Nation white paper. (See Steph’s interactive version.) But since the Hub’s raison d’etre was to ‘capture and disseminate learning about public sector innovation’, it would seem insane for there not to be some kind of electronic communication component.
The press release, not yet on the NSG website (?!), says the Hub will ‘carry out research and consultancy, network formation and active learning events for departmental leaders, develop corporate mechanisms that will help incentivise innovation, and look to international government interventions that seek to support more innovative government.’ Um, I’m sure that all sounds great. Let’s see where it goes.
So it’s not the online innovation hub I’d hoped for, when I saw the headline. I still think there’s a role for such a group, perhaps along the lines of the Economist’s Project Red Stripe group: six people given six months, and a six figure budget to do something cool and web-based. It’s worth downloading the project wash-up they wrote at the end of last year, describing the lessons they learned for such initiatives.

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.