Monthly Archives: June 2010

Shared Practice Through Video

[Summary: Handy guide to all the stages of creating a video of a youth project; from selecting equipment and sorting out consent; to planning, shooting and editing your film]

The Open University have been working on developing a new space in their  Practice Based Professional Learning (PBPL) environment for youth workers; and I was asked to put together a short guide on how youth practitioners can create video content to share insights into their own practice.

The result is ‘Shared Practice Through Video‘, which, in the spirit of sharing, is under a Creative Commons license and available for download as a PDF here.

You can also browse through it on Scribd over here. The guide won’t win any design awards (in fact, if anyone fancies taking advantage of the Creative Commons nature to remix it into a slightly more stylish design I’ll happily send you all the original material), but it does take you through all the stages of creating a video in the context of a youth project (or other project contexts for that matter).

Pareto Problems for Digital Innovation?

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pigpencole/1264620687/

Going for the High Hanging Fruit?

[Summary: Local by Social author Andy Gibson is working on a new paper for NESTA on how digital innovation can save public services, and has asked for reflections on ‘obstacles and their solutions’ to adoption or more social technology. I’ve written on practical barriers to digital technology in government before, but here I’m exploring an economic argument that sets out a potential challenge to many digital-social innovation projects*.]

The Pareto Problem
The Pareto Principle (named after the famous Italian Economist, but often known just as the 80-20 rule) suggests that in many real-world situations 80% of the features required in a project can be gained with just 20% of the effort**.

In software development and much of the business world, focussing on the 80% of features you can build easily makes sense. For each bit of effort put in at the start there is a large marginal return and benefit; but as you get to the trickier bits of a project, the marginal benefit (the number of people who will use a feature; how much benefit each new feature will bring etc.) relative to effort put in falls. The last 20% of features might cost four times as much as the first 80%, and in many cases, implementing them simply isn’t cost effective. So, the rational developer or manager never provides them.

Public Services don’t work like that. The tricky 20% of a service to provide is often the service to the most in need. Into that tricky 20% might fall providing services in remote rural areas; educating children from more challenging backgrounds; providing transports services for the elderly; making sure education classes are accessible to those with additional needs and so-on. When social innovators hold up technology driven innovations – new ways of providing public services – we have to ask: are they just solving the easy 80% and ignoring the tough cases?

Is the promise of more efficient and cheaper digital services simply the result of a slight-of-hand – measuring the costs of a service based on it’s provision in the easy cases and bracketing out the tough cases which would require re-engineering systems and adding significant cost and effort if a digital service were to be a universal service?

Possible Solutions
The Pareto Problem isn’t an argument against digital innovation per se. Innovation can shift where the Pareto Problem kick’s in (e.g. Can we serve 90% of the people on 10% of the cost and make savings that way?) and innovation can help the public sector to challenge the frequent over-design of processes and systems around the tough cases. However, the Pareto Problem is significant. A few possible ways to address it in thinking about digital innovation are addressed below.

  • Account for a universal service – any digital innovation needs to show its cost and benefits not just in the easy pilot cases – but also if it were to provide a universal service. Or if it can’t provide a universal service it needs to explain it’s limitations, and allow the public sector to properly cost provision to those the innovation will not work for.
  • Take the tough cases into account – Conventional design of services in the public sector often starts with tough cases. Staff have in mind the cases they faced recently where a service user had complex needs – and they design from the tricky cases first – building all sorts of processes and systems to cope with the complexities. Agile developers often start with the easy cases – and far too often the tough cases get ignored. For example, how does your service work for young people who need additional privacy because of a custody battle currently taking place? Or how does your service work for people with learning difficulties and other additional needs? ??Find the balance between over-engineering processes, but having processes that work for those with the greatest needs, is the key challenge for social innovators.
  • Design with social justice in mind – digital innovation in the public sector shouldn’t just be about creating ‘better stuff’ and ‘better services’ for individuals to consume: it should be about creating a ‘better society’ – and that involves thinking about the distribution of benefits from innovation as well as the nature of the innovation itself.
  • Collaborate and listen – the most important way to make sure social innovations don’t fall into a Pareto Problem trap is to design with the people working at the frontline.

A metaphorical summary
I started writing this post a while back under the title ‘What happens when we’ve picked all the low hanging fruit?’. Many digital innovations come showing as basket full of the low hanging fruit and explain how easy it was to pick. The key is asking – how are you also planning to get the stuff from the top of the tree as well?



* I’m posting this very tentatively, not sure that I’ve quite managed to express the idea I’ve been reflecting on – but aware that Andy’s paper is currently in progress and that working on the last 20% of tweaks to get this blog post spot on is, um, well, going to take at least four times as long as what’s been written so far… (#paretopost)

** Pareto’s original observations concerned the distribution of wealth in Italy, but the principle has been applied much more widely since. The actual numbers don’t matter here. The 80-20 ratio is simply used because Pareto observed it as a ratio that applied in many real-world situation. Take any ratio in the region of 70-30 towards 99-1 and you will see the argument above still broadly holds.

RightSpace: Holding on and moving forwards

Right Space Video Wall[Summary: If you’re involved in promoting the rights of Children and Young People, and you’re an advocate for youth participation, join in the RightSpace debate]

What is going to happen to youth participation over the next few years?

On the one hand we’ve a government promising massive spending cuts*; and on the other hand, quite genuinely (I hope) talking about localism and transferring power back to communities. Whilst the coalition agreement is woefully lacking in any recognition of the rights and agency of young people, some policy proposals are creating new spaces for civic engagement and participation – whether that’s from open data and transparency; or the encouragement of cooperative and social enterprise structures for the delivery of services.

Later this year, Practical Participation will be involved in an event, RightSpace, that’s trying to explore where participation has got to – and to look to the future of rights-based youth participation. My colleague Bill Badham is already at work heading around the country talking to people about their experiences of participation, their learning from the past, and their fears and visions for the future. You can see video clips from those conversations, join in the conversation, and find out more about  the RightSpace event taking place in Sheffield in October over on the dedicated RightSpace website.

Hope to see you there…


Footnotes
*I’m reading Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine right now, and feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the narrative of cuts being spun; so whilst questioning the spending cuts in this post – do think we need a far more critical debate about the arguments for ‘massive’ cuts – and some of the positive and ethical alternatives.

Guest post: Using data to highlight poverty and social justice issues in the World Cup

Today brings two firsts for this blog. The first ever guest post on the blog. And the first (and possibly only) instance of a post here dedicated to football. So, please welcome Pontus Westerberg from the World Development Movement, introducing this summer’s most essential data driven website…

Pontus WesterbergWho are you going to cheer for in the World Cup? Most people in the UK will probably support England, but what if you’re from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland and your team didn’t qualify?

Even if your team did qualify, who do you cheer for when they’re not playing? Perhaps a team that plays attractive football, like Brazil or a team that contains players from the club team that you support.

At the World Development Movement we wanted to take this idea a bit further and get people to discuss issues of social injustice, poverty and unfairness that we care a lot about.

The result is the site www.whoshouldicheerfor.com which ranks the countries playing in the World Cup based on a range of development and social justice indicators such as maternal maternity rate, carbon emissions per capita and income inequality.

The statistics for the indicators have mostly been taken from the UN’s Human Development Report and place Ghana as the most supportable team. To get the ‘league table we ranked each team for each indicator, then worked out a mean position for each one.

We’ve had some questions about the rankings. ‘Why is Nigeria so high up?’, has been a common one. The answer is that Nigeria has comparatively low carbon emissions and military spending, but also that it is the poorest country playing in the world cup.

That’s right – to highlight the gross inequalities that exist in the world we’ve ranked teams with low GDP per capita higher than teams with high GDP per capita. In our view, the underdogs – teams such as Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria – from the poorest countries in the World Cup deserve our support more than richer countries.

Of course, the ranking does not represent the official view of WDM on the countries themselves. It’s meant to be a fun and interested way to think hard about serious issues. How come Nigeria is the poorest country in the World Cup, yet has one of the world’s largest oil reserves? Why does the United States – the richest country – give so little money in aid?

So, go ahead, get involved. Who are you going to cheer for?


Open data requires responsible reporting…

[Summary: Some initial reflections on the release and reporting of COINS government spending data]

The last week has seen big moves in the opening up of Government data, with the release today of the COINS database of government spending.

Since it was released at 9.30 this morning there has been buzz of activity trying to clean the raw data up into usable forms (see the Open Knowledge Foundation and Guardian interfaces to exploring the COINS data) and I think it’s certainly fair to say that the race to create ways to explore the data has generated some impressive results – leading to tools beyond what may have been created by an internal government process to present the same data in user-friendly forms. We’re learning a lot right now about the potential of crowd-sourced collaborations between government and other groups. And thanks to the development of good ways to explore the data, it is already providing the basis for news stories on government spending… and this is where we’ve still got a lot to learn.

Responsible Reporting

Neither the Guardian (disappointingly), nor the Daily Mail (unsurprisingly), in reporting that government spend £1.8bn on consultants last year, give an account of how this figure was derived. Transparency can’t be for government alone.

It does not seem to be too much to ask that the reports give an account of how this data was derived, given they can very easily link to the raw data itself. The £1.8bn Consultancy Spend story is interesting. But without knowing what categories of codes from COINS were used to generate that figure – I’ve no way of using the transparency of the government data to explore that finding more for myself.

Interestingly, this may also fall foul of the terms under which the data is available: ‘Crown Copyright with Data.gov.uk Rights‘. This requires attribution of the data ‘in the form the data provider specifies, or otherwise “Contains [insert name of Data Provider] data © Crown copyright and database right” and requires that users “do not misrepresent the Data or its source”.

As government develops new conventions for transparency – it would be good to see new conventions from mediators between data and the public too. Perhaps data.gov.uk should be clearer about attribution – and suggest that attribution should involve a clear link back to the dataset. If that was combined with some of the points Paul Clarke noted (and my comment on that post picks up on) around improving the user-friendly nature of data-stores, then simple steps might move us closer to ensuring transparency builds effective public debate – weaving data into the information.

Transparency in government means more than just chance for government. And that’s important for advocates of open data and an open society not to loose sight of…