A stimulating start to CityCamp London

I spent the weekend at CityCamp London, a three day unconference aimed at making London a better place. Brilliantly organised by Futuregov, this was the latest in the worldwide series of City Camps since the movement was started by Kevin Curry earlier this year.

The first day was billed as “Stimulate”, and the speakers certainly met that brief. Leo Boland, Chief Executive of the GLA, began by exploring the concept of ‘the good city’, drawing on the work of geographer Ash Amin. Amin describes the city as a machine, and technology as the life support system of the city. It changes how we look at the city. It helps inform our ideas of past and present, and changes how we appear in the world.

He was followed up by John Tolva’s mind-bendingly brilliant talk on Unmaking Urban Mistakes, looking at system design and the networked city. You can (and, in my view, should) read the whole talk here.  I took away a lot of lessons from this session, particularly on unintended consequences of systems and how we can learn from system failure.

Central to Tolva’s thesis is the role of data. An involved community equipped with data is better able to ask the hard questions. To my mind this applies to any community – whether in a city, an organisation, or a geographically dispersed interest group. Data-centred consultation allows people to interact and debate around a common set of facts.

Next up, Matt Jones from Berg on ‘Vertigo: standing on top of the 21st century in one of the world’s biggest cities’. Vertigo, in this context, is not fear of heights but fear of scale; the sheer scale of the city and the complexity of its systems frightens us. He proposed the concept of a ‘macroscope’, something which will allow us to see the aggregated whole as well as the detail. Technology allows us to see the detail as well as the whole system; he gave the example of Here and There, a horizonless map which shows the whole plan but where the perspective changes as you approach.

What Jones is advocating here is pragmatism.  So for instance he talked about Clay Shirky’s essay on situated software, which suggests we make software good enough for its own context if you want to make it happen. Make software for *your* street, not *the* street, and it stands half a chance of getting off the ground.

We also need to solve vertigo problem if we want to engage people with the issues. Here Jones borrowed the concept of synecdoche from the world of literature.  Synecdoche means making the part represent the whole; we need to make big, terrifying data digestible by real people if we want them to engage with it. By making it human scale, we take away the vertigo that disengages.

Later we moved on to an interview-type session with the RSA’s Matthew Taylor talking to Cllr Steve Reed from Lambeth Council, Caroline Pidgeon from the London Assembly and an opposition councillor from Harrow Council. This was probably the low point of the day, and not just because of the parallel debate about Twitterfall which was taking place on the twitter back channel at the same time.

The conversation seemed to get stuck on the idea that councillors have so many more ways to get in touch with people than they used to – e.g. email, text, Twitter, Facebook. That’s true, but what they were really saying is that there are so many more ways for councillors to talk TO people. At one point we were even on the topic of why email is better than letters – which, given it was a room full of 200 geeks few of whom have sent a letter in the last decade, was simply bizarre. The panel admitted politicians are now putting up barriers to deal with the deluge of communication. To my mind this is a move in exactly the wrong direction; what we need is to move to open platforms and actually have two-way conversations.

Consultation surveys and email do not equal web 2.0, however much councillors like to think it does. In the Q&A following I asked what we can do to improve the understanding of IT amongst those leading local authorities – both elected representatives and leading officers. Bad websites cost councils in the UK £11m per month in abandoned transactions and unnecessary phone/in person-contact. In my experience one of the main reasons council websites are bad is that those procuring them don’t understand online and don’t know what they need to do to make web work. It was disappointing that the panel didn’t really answer the question.

To close up we had three lightning-fast talks from Anne McCrossan, Nesta’s Philip Colligan then Nathalie McDermott, who I could listen to all day. These events can often end in navel-gazing as we lazily assume others think and do things just like us. Talking about her work with disengaged groups, such as men in prison and the gypsy traveller community, was an essential reminder that for many groups there are significant barriers to adoption, access and engagement which have to be overcome.

Sydney’s CivicTec gave us an international perspective on using technology to meet social need. This highlighted some cracking projects, such as a project to connect refugees across borders.

Finally, we heard from Lambeth’s Youth Mayor and the borough’s Member of the UK Youth Parliament. Taking a campaigns-based approach and setting aside a budget, this is a refreshing example of proper youth consultation rather than the box-ticking exercises so many local authorities are guilty of. Other councils take note.

All in all, a highly stimulating afternoon, and an excellent point to kick off the collaborative discussions the following day. If I were to sum up what I learned, it’s probably that literacy plus agency equals active, engaged communities. The role of technologists and communicators is to make this simple – to identify needs, to consult with communities and users and develop solutions to social problems that are tailored to their contexts.

I’m aiming for two more blog posts in the next couple of days, one on the “Collaborate” day (specifically, the sessions I went to), and another with my thoughts on the event as a whole and some esoteric stuff on our relationship with place which I’ve been thinking about since. But I figure if I don’t publish this first post now I never will. So here it is.

CityCamp all over the internets:

Will Twitter’s new terms call time on council feeds?

Twitter’s new terms of service were launched last week, to general acclaim from users. The new terms aim to tackle the rising tide of spam that threatens to engulf Twitter, as well as prepare the ground for the arrival of advertising.

The refreshed Twitter Rules spell out a number of different reasons why you may find your Twitter account terminated. In calling time for inappropriate avatars,  squatting and multiple, near-identical accounts, the new rules turn into policy what was already established moderating practice.

The new terms emphasise the personal touch, stating that you’ll be in violation of the terms of service  “if your updates consist mainly of links, and not personal updates.”

Now this could cause a real headache for councils, the vast majority of whom use feeds to automatically tweet stories and releases. In banning all bots, the new terms would appear to call time  for many councils on Twitter.

Stuart Harrison suggests councils mitigate the risk by personalising their tweets, supplementing feed stories with replies and additional information.

Whilst I agree councils aren’t currently making the best use of Twitter – using it as a broadcast medium with which to distribute press releases – I’m not sure many councils will be able to do this.

I expect that over the coming months and years more councils will follow Brighton’s lead and recruit dedicated social media officers. But until that happens few have the resources to really put the social into social media.

Right now it’s not clear how – or indeed if – Twitter will police this. But if they do start banning all automated feeds, I’m not sure many councils will have the capacity  to change tack quickly and keep their feeds running.

That would be a real shame. As Liz Azyan found, more councils are using Twitter than any other social platform (30% at the last count). The relatively swift adoption of Twitter is a rare example of council officers embracing social media and, well, JFD-ing it.

If Twitter starts banning councils for automated feeds, it’s unlikely many will have the determination or resources to get their feeds running again. Councils are inherently risk-adverse, and if we get burned with this it could be a real setback for social media in local government.

The problem is, the new terms imply that all bots are bad. Yet plenty of users don’t think they are.

I think of Twitter as a one-stop information resource. The personal touch is part of what makes Twitter so useful (the ability to ask questions on seemingly any subject and get a string of useful answers in minutes is really invaluable). But announcements from companies and organisations are often genuinely useful too, and Twitter would be a poorer place without them.

Like bad pubs, bad feeds are easy to spot and easy to avoid.

Fortunately, it’s not just councils and PRs who might fall foul of the new rules; many news organisations, such as the Guardian and CNN, use RSS feeds to Twitter latest stories.

And this is where we’re likely to see some push-back. Many automated feeds are demonstrably popular, and Twitter is unlikely to want to get on the wrong side of the powerful media organisations currently using their service by banning their feeds.

That being the case, I suspect (and hope) Twitter will use their discretion and separate the good bots from the bad.

What do you think? Is Twitter right to ban bots?

What makes for a good council website?

I’ve decided to steer clear of blogging on the recent disastrous  Birmingham Council website launch.

While Paul Canning’s blog post sums up the catalogue of errors extremely well, it’s clear to anyone visiting the site that huge mistakes have been made. Bad government websites are launched all the time, but few have Birmingham’s £2.8m price tag.

The one good thing to come out of this debacle is a renewed focus on producing good, user-focused council websites.

Just what does make for a good council website? Whether we’re local gov webbies, communicators, or interested users, we all have ideas on what makes websites work for local authorities.

Dave Briggs has set up a page on IdeaScale where local gov webbies and interested amateurs can collaboratively produce a wishlist of what council websites really ought to have.

He hopes this will provide a resource full of good advice for councils looking  to improve their web presence.

Come and join the debate! You can submit your ideas or vote and comment on the ideas already suggested.

You can find it at: http://localgovweb.ideascale.com/

Thoughts on Portsmouth’s Facebook ban

Portsmouth Council announced this week they’ve decided to ban access to Facebook from its computers after it was revealed staff spent an average of 400 hours a month on the site.

Council bans on Facebook are hardly new; many have restrictions on access thanks to the requirements of Government Connect. But this story focussed on “waste”, noting 400 hours a month equates to between five and six minutes per month spent on the site by each of the 4,500 PC-based staff.

Firstly, the statistic isn’t a sound one; Portsmouth Council admit they can’t differentiate between business and personal use, nor between dwelling and active browsing, which means they don’t know how much of that 400 hours is clocked up by windows left open while the user does something else.

Second, the headline doesn’t reflect the real issue behind this story. Organisations have had this debate many times already, over the potential for employees to waste time if given a telephone, email, or access to the internet. In all of these cases, it’s a manager’s job to tackle any perceived timewasting, and so too it should be for Facebook. But instead of looking at the quality of performance management, Portsmouth Council are trying to solve the problem from the centre.

This strikes me as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. People are already talking about us on social networks. We can either choose to ignore those conversations, or we can listen to and learn from them.

As Carl Heggarty notes, would we consider a member of staff visiting a village hall and listening to community issues and communicating with them about councils services a waste of time, or would that be considered community engagement?

Employees listening out for the organisation on social networks gives us an extended network of “eyes and ears” able to highlight problems and bring them to our attention before they spiral out of control and become significant reputational risks.

By banning access, we prevent employees from listening on our behalf, identifying problems so they can be given attention by more conventional means. But heavy-handed bans also prevent employees from speaking for us. Employees can be powerful advocates for what we do, and are likely to speak highly of us in their social networks, both on and offline. By banning access we limit employees ability to advocate for us online.

By limiting the extent to which informed and engaged employees can advocate on its behalf, Portsmouth Council is failing to get the full value from its internal communications.

Finally, centrally-imposed bans on access could also be said to have a negative impact on employee engagement. Hertzberg argues that dissatisfaction with employment is primarily motivated by company policy, supervision, salary, interpersonal relations and working conditions (what he termed ‘Hygiene Factors’). Portsmouth’s policy of blocking social networking sites could be seen to create dissatisfaction among employees, as it could be seen to be heavy-handed centralised supervision, and limits their ability to manage their work-life balance and build working relationships.

The Work Foundation found access to new technology affects how people view their organisational culture: “People who have access to newer technologies are more likely to characterise their organisation as one that is loyal with mutual trust, that is committed to innovation and development or is focussed on achievement and not rule bound”.

The holy grail of employee engagement is discretionary effort. Engage your staff and they repay you by investing more time and effort into their work; fail to engage – or actively disengage – and employees are not motivated to contribute more than the bare minimum.

A more nuanced look at Portsmouth’s Facebook ban might reveal it has a negative impact both on employee engagement and on community engagement, resulting in far more “waste” than the five to six minutes a month currently spent on Facebook.

How can we use web 2.0 to safeguard children?

FutureGov‘s Dominic Campbell asks how we can use the social web to improve the way children’s services connect and collaborate, and so become more effective in safeguarding children.

Here’s an extract from his FutureGov blog post:

“Sat watching the case of Baby Peter unfold on the television last year, as with the vast majority of you I’m sure, I was left feeling hugely saddened, frustrated and powerless to help prevent such events from ever happening again. I am not a social worker nor do I work for any one of the numerous agencies involved in the extremely complex and challenging world of child protection. However, it did get me thinking about where I might be able to provide some support, specifically around how we might be able to draw on social technologies to contribute to safeguarding children…

“…To start off with, we are looking to bring together multi-disciplinary group of senior managers and practitioners from childrens social services, teachers, police and health workers with social web technologist, public service designer, funders – or even just people who have a personal passion for this area – to help us design and run a small Safeguarding 2.0 pilot. Nothing big in the first instance, more a proof of concept if you like, but with the potential to transform the way in which professionals and non-professionals alike might better share information and form the kinds of relationships that might prevent future tragedies.”

It’s an ambitious but incredibly worthwhile idea, I’m sure you’ll agree. If you’d like to know more, or to share your ideas, go along to the workshop.

More details about the project and the workshop are in the briefing paper here: