Category Archives: Digital Government

Digital innovations are not always digital (and other reflections on youth-focussed digital innovation lab design)

[Summary: assorted learning from participation and hack-days applied to ideas about a youth-focussed digital innovation lab.]

Right Here, Comic Relief and Nominet Trust have a really interesting tender out right now for someone to deliver two ‘Innovation Labs’ focussed on helping “young people to look after their mental health and to access appropriate help and support”.

They describe how the labs should provide young people with the opportunity to work with mental health, youth work and design professionals to design digital tools that will meet their needs.”  If it weren’t for the unknowns of the schedule for my PhD that starts in October, it’s exactly the sort of project Practical Participation would be putting in a proposal for*, but, with the freedom to adopt a more open innovation exchange style bit of sharing around a proposal, and having been unable to resist jotting a few notes about how I might approach the tender, here’s a few quick reflections on youth-focussed digital innovation labs, drawing on learning from previous participation projects.

Digital innovations are not always digital

In my experience working with youth services and mental health services exploring use of digital tools, the biggest gaps between the potential of digital tools and their use in practice is not down to a lack of Apps or widgets – but comes down to a lack of training, inadequate policies, or other small barriers.

The most effective outcomes of a digital innovation lab could be how to guides for practitioners, youth-led training for mental health workers in how to engage online, or new protocols that make sure mental health staff have a framework and incentives to make use of digital tools – as much as they might be new apps and websites.

Set up to succeed

I’ve experienced and observed a number of participation projects in the past that have, mostly unintentionally, set young people up to fail by asking them to redesign services or systems without reference to the staff who operate those systems day-to-day, or the realities of the budgetary and legal constraints the services operate under. Instead of empowering young people to bring their lived experience to real problems, whilst avoiding organisational agendas crushing the ideas and insights young people can bring, participation projects can end up asking young people to solve problems without giving them all the information they need to find viable solutions.

In innovation events with both young people and adults ideas often come up which, whilst great in principle, draw on mistaken assumptions about resources that might realistically be available, or about how digital tools might be adopted and used (it’s not uncommon to hear ‘innovators’ of any age suggesting they’ll build ‘the next Facebook’ to bring together people to discuss some particular issue). Finding the balance between free-flowing innovation, and realisable ideas is a challenge – and increased if, for the majority of participants, the event is their first innovation lab, or project teams don’t have people with experience of taking an project through from idea to implementation. Finding facilitators who can combine the right balance of technical realism, with a focus on youth-led innovation, is important, as is offering training for facilitators.

Projects like Young Rewired State offer an interesting model, where young people who have participated in past events, return as young mentors in future years. Finding a community of young mentors may also prove useful for an innovation lab.

Involving adults

It’s not only mentors and digital experts who have a role to play in the design process, but also mental health professionals and volunteer adults who work day-to-day with young people. In policy consultations in the past we’ve used a ‘fish bowl’ like approach to adults involvement, starting the day with adults as observers only on the outside of circles where young people are developing plans and ideas; moving to a stage (perhaps after an hour) when young people can invite adults into the discussion, but adults can’t ‘push in’; and then (another hour or so later) moving to a stage when adults and young people participate together. Whilst artificial, in a policy consultation, this sort of process helped address issues around the balance of power between young people and adults, without removing the benefits to be found from youth-adult dialogue. In an innovation and design situation, this exact model might not be appropriate – but thinking about lightweight processes or ‘rules’ to help the relationship between young people and adults may be useful.

An alternative approach we’ve taken at past participation events is to have a parallel track of activities for workers coming to the event with young people: could you set a team of adult innovators competing with young innovators to contrast the ideas they come up with?

There are no representative young people

I’m not a representative 26 year old. There aren’t representative 17 year olds. Or 15 year olds. Or any age for that matter. People often design innovations for themselves: that doesn’t mean they’re designing for all young people. Not all young people are technology experts. In fact, most aren’t. There is no such thing as a digital native. Bringing the lived experiences of young people with experience of mental health services and challenges to the design of services is still a very very good thing. It can mean massive improvements in services. But often there’s a risk of implicitly or explicitly thinking of service-user or youth participants as ‘representatives’ – and that tends to be an unhelpful framing. Understanding participants as individuals with particular skills and insights to bring tends to work better.

Freedom and frameworks

I’ve spent most of this afternoon at the Guardian offices in London as a mentor for young hackers at Young Rewired State. Young Rewired State is a week-long event taking place across the country for young people interested in building things with open data and digital platforms. Young Rewired State centres have varied in how much structure they have had: some simply providing a room, and some mentors on hand, for young people to identify what they want to work on and get hacking. Others have supported the participants to work through a design process, offering more structured how-to guidance and support. Some young people thrive and innovate best with a framework and structure to work within. Others need the freedom from pre-planned programmes and tight agendas in order to innovate. Having no agenda at all can exclude those who need structure. But an agenda that is too tight, or a programme that is too prescriptive can miss innovation opportunities. Fortunately, the Innovation Labs tender that sparked this post highlights that the events themselves should be co-designed with young people – so there’s space to negotiate and work this one out.

Keep out of the dragons den

I’ve sat on a few ‘dragons den’ style panels recently – responding to presentations about young people’s project ideas. And I’ve yet to be convinced that they really make a useful contribution.

 

This post has been in the spirit of reclaiming reflective space, and has no neat ending. 

*Although I’m not putting in a proposal around the labs, I’d still be really interested to get involved should a youth-engagement and effective technology focussed facilitator/action researcher/data-wrangler be useful to whoever does end up running the labs.

Generation Y and Digital Participation: RIGP 2011

[Summary: Notes for a presentation on 'Generation-Y' and public services hosted by Institut de la Gestion Publique (Institute for Public Management), delivered on 27th June 2011, Paris]

Below is a copy of the draft I wrote for a round-table discussion starter at today’s ‘Generation-Y and public services’ conference hosted at the Institut de la Gestion Publique in Paris. Whilst most of the conference had explored issues around ‘Generation Y’ as employees in public service (disappointingly without, I must add, any other members of ‘Generation Y’ taking part!), the round table I took part in looked at how government can engage ‘Generation Y’ in policy making. I promised to share this draft, and to add a few links to further resources, which I’ve done below. You can find a write-up of many of the other sessions in Andrew Krzmarzick‘s excellent live-blog on the GovLoop site

Generation Y and Digital Participation: RIGP 2011

“It is a pleasure to be speaking with you at today’s conference.

I get involved in a number of different youth policy related events and activities – and having just turned 26, I often have to check the definition of ‘youth’ being used to see whether I quality as part of the ‘youth caucus’, or whether I’m really there solely as a contributor or facilitator. Fortunately, when people define ‘Generation Y’, the usually pick either 1980 or 1985 as the years when technology started to become ubiquitous. These years are used to pick out the birth of a generation who came of age with the Internet, mobile phones, multi-channel and interactive media all around: so fortunately, with a 1985 birth date, I don’t need to always check whether or not I’m ‘in’ Generation-Y. And yet, defining a generation: drawing a boundary around it and assuming that there is more similarity between children, young people and young adults born over a particular span of years, than there is similarity between certain sections of that group and other age groups; or emphasizing the commonality of the generation over it’s diversity, can be dangerous and misleading.

The digital platforms that particular groups of teenagers or young adults choose to use, and how they choose to use them, will be affected not only by their age, but by their socio-economic status, by the pressing concerns at particular stages of their lives, and by ‘network effects’. As an aside: understanding networks and network effects is really important to understanding contemporary communication. If, for example, the thing that is most important to you right now is communicating with friends, you will choose the communication tools that best allow you to do that. That’s why we saw students adopt Facebook on campus when it first emerged; and why we now have lots of anecdotal accounts of young people in the UK, particularly teenage girls, turning to the Blackberry phone and BBM, Blackberry Messenger, as their communication platform of choice: it offers low-cost instant messaging, with the important advantage that you can control who is on your friends list and retain some privacy – something increasingly important as Facebook has shifted it’s privacy settings to a more public default and become a place where parents are increasingly joining the network.

Even when we understand that Generation-Y is diverse in itself, and that no-one approach will engage a whole generation, we also have to also recognise that communication technologies, whilst often adopted and explored en-masse first by young people, diffuse throughout society over time. New communication technologies create new possibilities for all of us. The pioneers of new approaches to policy making come from all age groups. Just over a week ago I was at Local Gov Camp – a Saturday gathering of committed local government technologists in Birmingham, giving up their own time to talk about digital possibilities for government practice. I looked around the room, and it wasn’t age that defined the community: it was a commitment to improving public services, and an interest in how communication technologies could help us do that.

So, I’m not going to talk much about Generation-Y in what follows. But I will talk about two things: (1) how technology creates new opportunities for public participation in policy making; and (2) how it creates new ways to include young people – not as generation-Y, but as a group who have consistently been excluded from policy making.

Identifying the gap

There is undoubtedly a gap between the way public services communicate, and the way many citizens want to communicate with their government. And that gap has been created, to a significant extend, by communication technologies.

But we can understand that gap in two different ways. Firstly, we could understand it as a channel gap. Government is not communicating through the right channels. It’s still using letters, leaflets, posters and broadcast channels as it’s default mode of communication. Where government is online, which is almost always now is, it creates static websites with limited opportunities for interaction. The channel gap analysis highlights the need for government to be present where citizens are – taking government onto YouTube, to Twitter and to Facebook – providing services on digital TV and mobile phones – and being more dynamic in how government information is presented. However, the gap is not just about the channels through which government communicates. Having a Facebook page isn’t digital government. Digital technology has also created an expectations gap.

The expectations gap is far harder to bridge: but much more important to address than just the channel gap. It involves far deeper organisational and cultural change in the way we do government. What new expectations have we got to meet?

1) An expectation of open information – with the cost of publishing brought near to zero – the expectation is that all content should be available just a search query away. Yet much public sector information remains hard to find. And whilst some areas of the public sector are embracing open data, data on what government is doing remains hard to find. And there is an expectation of personal information too: when I order a product from an online retailer, I can track it’s progress to me – yet when I recently had to order a form from the UK Tax Office which I was promised would be sent out by the next post, I had a frustrating wait of two weeks with no way of checking whether it had been sent and lost in the post, or simply not despatched yet.

2) An expectation of comment - research by Consumer Focus found that “UK consumers are leaving well over 100 million comments a year” on the web about services they have received. A chunk of those will be about public services. Consumer Focus also found people are far more likely to trust what other consumers are saying about a service than what the company (or government) are saying. Just about everything on the modern web has a comment feature, or a ‘like’ button, or some way to leave your mark on it or share it with your network. How often is that the case with government spaces?

3) An expectation of interactivity. Getting good information online and making space for citizens to leave comments as feedback, or as peer-support for others, is relatively easy. Meeting expectations of interactivity requires more attention. More than once I’ve posted comments on Twitter mentioning particular companies and problems I’m having with their services, and within minutes I’ve had replies from those companies offering to help solve the problem. The expectation of responsiveness created by instant communication highlights the slow replies I get when I contact my local council, or the even slower replies (if there is any feedback or reply at all) when I engage in a public consultation.

4) An expectation of collaboration. When communication was slow it made sense to to package problems up into processes based on a limited number of communication transactions. I fill in a form or respond to a survey; government thinks about it; maybe a request for more information comes out; I reply; a decision is made. A slow process, and one of interaction rather than collaboration. But when tools like Google Documents hold out the promise of collaborating together instantly on documents and plans; when I realize that I can input better into the policy process by joining online discussions rather than filling in consultation forms; and when digital technologies allow communities to self-organise and take ownership of their own problems, the need is for government able to collaborate through new communication tools, not just use some new channels for old processes.

These are by no means universal expectations. Many of the most excluded in our societies have learnt to expect very little from governments when it comes to participation and policy making – and we must pay attention to managing expectations – both by helping the most demanding to understand (and engage with) the challenges of government, and by working to raise the expectations of the most disadvantaged. However, these expectations, perhaps more common amongst younger demographics who don’t have other expectations to replace them, but expectations found across society, present challenges for governments to meet.

A mix of approaches – engaging children and young people

I want to turn now to look at a number of quick case studies of online engagement, and to talk about how they offer opportunities to challenge age-discrimination by involving young people in decision making. When I talk about young people I’m interested not only in young adult employees, but also children and teenagers. I believe that children, young people and young adults are all key stakeholders in policy-making and should have say in decisions that affect them, and affect society as a whole. I also believe children, young people and young adults all bring particular contributions to policy making and are an asset to be drawn upon.

I’ve got three brief case studies: one of individual engagement; one of policy opened up for comment; and one of collaborative policy discussions.

Firstly, three years ago I was working with youth workers (I think the French term for this group of professionals may be ‘social pedagogue’) who wanted to involve excluded teenagers in decision making. They found that, with young people living across a wide geographical area, it was expensive to get groups together to talk about issues face-to-face: and the inconsistency of the groups who could get together at meetings made developing conversations difficult. Based on feedback from young people, they started to explore using social network sites like Facebook as a low-cost tool for holding discussions and engaging (PDF). It involved the youth workers switching to a new channel to engage with young people, and to support them to identify how to get their views into the policy process. Some of that work feeding into the policy process still involved writing reports and making presentations – but it was facilitated online. But more than a new channel, it involved youth workers finding new ways of working and developing their skills and working practices in order to operate in a new environment: checking in regularly with young people. The choice of Facebook worked because the workers understood it was a space based on relationships. There are many different ways to be present in Facebook, from using it as a broadcast channel, through to engaging in participative conversations. The workers had to identify the right approaches for their participation project. (Useful links: See www.youthworkonline.org.uk for a wealth of sharing learning around youth work engagement with digital communication. See also other posts here on ‘Youth Work 2.0′)

Secondly, and this was specifically mentioned in some of the conference literature, the UK Government has experimented with a number of initiatives to get citizens to comment directly during the policy making process. These started at least under the last government, with some great projects exploring ways of publishing draft government reports for paragraph-by-paragraph commenting. One of the high-profile initiatives of the current government though was to ‘crowd-source’ ideas for public spending cuts in an initiative called the Spending Challenge. Citizens were asked to submit proposals for areas where the government could save money. Submissions were published online, and visitors to the site could vote for those proposals they thought most interesting. Whether or not the initiative was a success depends on who you talk to. Whilst some have objected that many of the comments were abusive, racist or otherwise offensive, it had 1000s of serious submissions, and similar exercises have been tried with suggesting laws to be removed, and a currently regulation-focussed exercise, the ‘Red Tape Challenge’, is ongoing. The team behind the initiative also worked hard to turn it from commenting into conversation – posting regular blog posts updates highlighting the way they were analyzing the input, and what themes they were identifying to take forward into future discussions. (Useful links: See this page for a government analysis of the initiative outcomes and costs; and these posts from delib who built the platform. For examples of different approaches to comment-able policy documents, see the community run WriteToReply, or the Read and Comment platform increasingly used by government departments, and initially developed based on pilot projects within the civil service)

My own experiences of an earlier, similar project*, inviting comments on the coalition agreement, also highlighted some very positive interactive government when I noticed that the terms and conditions prohibited anyone under 18 commenting on the site without parental consent. Under 18s can join the army, have sex, drive a car, pay tax – and many other things, without parents consent – so to need parental consent before you can engage in public policy making seemed wrong. I wrote a brief blog post to that effect. And very soon after the Central Office of Information, who were responsible for the terms and conditions, got in touch asking for more details of why the should, and how they could, update them. As I understand, through a brief collaboration, started on a blog and by Twitter, and continued by e-mail and phone-calls, this ‘accidental’ exclusion of young people through the selection of terms of conditions was removed, and the default terms and conditions for future projects updated.

More work is still needed to make sure the language of initiatives like the spending challenge is accessible to young people, and to equip intermediaries to support young people to engage with them, but at the very least removing artificial barriers to young peoples’ involvement is important.

Thirdly, I want to mention two recent experiences using collaborative online documents in policy-focussed discussions with teenagers and young adults. With the Dynamic Youth Coalition at the Internet Governance Forum in Vilnius last year, and the Youth Forum of the Commonwealth Local Government Forum in Cardiff this year, we’ve used online documents allowing anyone present at the event (or participating from home online) to collaboratively draft the outcome statements. Everyone was editing the same text from their own laptops – and common power dynamics that mean those with the loudest voices shape the text most of all – were challenged. To often in participation processes we find authorities gate-keep the shaping of the policy itself – preferring to ask people for their views, and then go away and remain in control of final texts and documents. Yet with digital technology the chance for real collaborative drafting arises – and in some contexts has a lot to offer.

Of course, these different approaches introduce their own power dynamics – but they also offer great opportunities for improved participation.

If I had longer I would sketch out for you how different digital approaches to participation can fit together – offering young people a range of choices about how to get involved in civic life, and creating a ‘pathway of participation’ that allows both broad and deep engagement through digital media. But for now I will close with some very brief remarks on moving from where we are now to being ready for this digital world.

Addressing the barriers

When your analysis is based on the idea of a channel gap, it’s natural to think the solution lies in investment in new platforms or channels for communication. The real investment needs to be in culture change and skills. I’ve been asked before what is the biggest barrier to government engaging with ‘generation Y’, and I’ve not been able to point to one big barrier. Rather, there are 100s of small ones. Some are technical: for example, if you can’t get a picture of yourself loaded from a digital camera onto your office computer, you can’t have a picture next to your online profile, and that changes the nature of engagement you will have in an online forum. Others are organisational: it takes too long to get sign off to be able to hold a digital conversation. Others are cultural: a fear of failure, when being allowed to, in safe circumstances, fail and learn from failure is a key part of collaborative conversation.

If there has been one big omission however, by the advocates, of all ages, calling for us to take advantage of digital technologies to improve government, it is that they have neglected established models of organizational change and have assumed that others will simply follow their lead. Connecting digital possibilities, with established processes and strategies for managing change: ensuring all of government is able to engage with new tools and ways of working; and making sure citizens and civil servants in all generations can understand this as an opportunity, not a threat; is one of our biggest challenges.”

 

(*Note, in the talk I incorrectly suggested that the conversation around T&Cs took place in relation to the spending challenge. In reviewing blog posts I’ve realised I was incorrect on that assertion).

Blended services: bringing digital and face-to-face together

[Summary: Instead of funding new ‘online’ services, what happens when we fund ‘blended’ services: can we get realistic cost-savings, and enhanced provision - rather than inefficient pseudo-savings and restricted services]

Each face-to-face contact in the delivery of service is expensive. On online contact can be a lot cheaper. Plus, quite a lot of service users are asking to be able to access services online. It might be a support group for carers; careers advice for young people; mentoring and counseling, or any number of other services that I could be talking about. I’ve seen a number of cases where services take note of the above, and quickly decide that what they need is an online service. Perhaps to replace their current provision, or perhaps as a pilot in addition to it. But generally as a distinct service from existing offerings, and more often than not, with plans to build some new platform for delivering their online service – with a very linear process of consult->build->use.

But, as some of the presentations and discussions at today’s imh2011 (internet & mental health) workshop suggested, that doesn’t really make much sense.

Firstly, evidence was presented from trials of online Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Broadly – it was only with a blend of online self-service CBT, and continued direct meetings with practitioners – that positive outcomes, equivalent to those from existing face-to-face services were maintained. Comparing the £50 per-contact cost of a face-to-face session, with the £5 cost of an online intervention, and supposing online offers a £45 saving* only makes sense if the two lead to equivalent outcomes. If what’s really needed is £25 worth of practitioner time, and £5 worth of online provision, including online in the mix can still lead to savings, and significant savings: but it’s important to have a realistic sense of what the savings can be.

Secondly, the challenge with delivering online services is widely acknowledged to be not so much to do with having the right tools, as with having skills and organisational culture to be able to work in new digital ways. So spending all the budget on building an online platform (and expecting that a £5k, £10k or £20k budget is going to deliver a platform to rival existing off-the-shelf offerings that have had £millions invested in them) doesn’t seem the most worthwhile investment. Investing time instead in exploring different ways that a service should communicate digitally – iteratively negotiating different platforms to find those that work for service users and staff – makes a lot more sense.

(There was some, in my opinion, unhelpful talk in a few presentations and workshops about ‘digital natives’ and presentation of statistics on particular technology platforms with the largest market penetration (SMS; Mobiles; Social Networks), with the implicit or explicit suggestion that, as these were the widest used platforms, these were the ones which services should be adopting as digital service-delivery channels. It’s far too easy to gloss over the subtleties of how different communication tools work in practice: and to miss the dynamics that mean how a tool works will change as different network effects kick in. Even if the majority of service users say they want access to services via mobile phone for example, it’s only when you pilot and take an ethnographic or grounded approach to researching how your service works over SMS or smart-phone channels that both you and service users can come to understand whether such a service really makes sense and will have enough uptake to justify more investment. And even then, chances are that changes in the market (e.g. when low-cost data plans on mobile become available to young people), the structure of the network (e.g. when parents started joining Facebook), or innovations (e.g. when the next platform comes along…) mean that you’ll need to take your service to new spaces within the next few years at most. The notion of ‘digital natives’ is particularly unhelpful when trying to understand how young people and adults with complex needs and different life-experiences use, adopts and appropriate technology. Finding low-cost experiments that can help staff teams and service users explore different potential communication tools (why not try holding a planning meeting via skype? take notes on an etherpad? or even try a field-trip to a virtual world or other online community?) and then reflect on their various merits may prove much more valuable than many meetings spent discussing statistics on popular platforms or drawing up specifications to build new platforms).

Thirdly, the culture change needed to engage effectively with digital service provision – a culture change involving being more agile in moving from platform-to-platform – needs to apply to ‘offline’ services as well. If you’re running an online support group, and it becomes apparent that members would find a face-to-face meeting useful too, can you easily find meeting space and resources to help that happen? Rather than booking rooms and times for regular sessions, and then worrying about making sure there are always people there: are there some groups who would prefer online engagement, with the option to organise face-to-face meetings on-demand – perhaps even choosing the coffee shop over the community centre as the meeting place. If the available budget is more transparent to service users, how can they negotiate the balance of how much of it gets spent on digital services, and how much is spent on enabling other provision? Some ‘blended services’ (blending online and offline) might be predominantly face-to-face, enhanced by a bit of online interaction (as simple as using Doodle.com to arrange meeting times, or Facebook to remind people about sessions); some ‘blended services’ might be predominantly digital enhanced by the occasional face-to-face meet up or service. Some blended services could turn out to have no face-to-face at all, but retaining it as an option.

Of course there are big challenges transforming services to work in these ways – but if the alternative is either seeing more services set up ‘online-only’ side-projects based on false cost-saving or demand assumptions, or seeing services fail to take advantage of opportunities to enhance practice, and find reasonable efficiencies through delivering some of what they do in digital ways – then the challenge is, I think, worth engaging with.

So, this post rather unexpectedly seems to have got me to three draft principles of blended provision:

  • Identify realistic cost-savings from going digital if you budget for a mix of online and face-to-face
  • Invest in skills, understanding and iterative development rather than platforms
  • Allow services to be agile in how the mix digital and face-to-face provision; engage service users in setting the balance.

What do you reckon?

(*Figures are illustrative only.)

Does a Facebook focus do us any favours?

[Summary: Reflections on going beyond Facebook in online youth work. Reposted from the Youth Work Online blog]

When I started out researching Youth Work and Social Networking in 2007 I really wanted to look at ‘Youth Work and the Internet’, but the needs of focussed research meant the boundary was drawn to look specifically at social network sites. At the time, a considerable number of young people were on Bebo and MySpace, and only certain groups were using Facebook, which had not-long opened it’s doors to everyone – having started out restricted to students at selected Universities. Talk of social media would range over a wide range of tools – from YouTube and video sharing, to still take in ideas of online chat and instant messaging, and niche photo-sharing or art-sharing websites. Now when I talk about young people online, the conversation far too often becomes ‘Young people on Facebook’.

There is a tension. The youth work idea of starting where young people are means that Facebook may well be a natural starting point. Bebo and MySpace are all but gone, and Facebook is the starting point for many young people’s online lives. Yet, Facebook is not all there is to the Internet, nor should it be. I’ve undoubtedly been guilty at times of ‘promoting’ Facebook as an youth work setting and writing about online youth engagement in very Facebook centric ways. Facebook is a youth work setting; and it does offer powerful tools for youth engagement. But as well as starting where young people are, youth work principles also encourage us to ‘go beyond’ – and to work with young people to explore alternatives and to be critical about the dominance of Facebook.

What does this mean in practice?

  • When we think about young people’s media use and online lives – we should be careful not to focus entirely on Facebook.In a presentation today by Stephen Carrick-Davies on how young people in a london Pupil Referral Unit are using the Internet Stephen emphasized “For Internet, read Mobile Phone” and highlighted the messaging and social networking taking place through Blackberry Messenger.
  • We should mix-and-match different online engagement tools. Even if there is a Facebook point of contact with a project, there might be other more open tools for hosting other elements of interaction and conversations.
  • I’ve long advocated for making blogging platforms the ‘home’ of any open access online content, with an ‘outpost’ taking the content into Facebook. Facilitating in the online space might involve encouraging young people to move from closed discussions in Facebook, to discussions in blogging spaces or on discussion lists – reflecting in the process on the different impacts of each technology choice.
    I’ve watched a recent process with interest where a discussion has moved from an open Ning network into a Facebook group. The velocity of discussion has increased in the Facebook group – but different voices are coming out stronger.
  • ‘Going beyond’ in digital youth work isn’t just about moving from ‘consumer’ to ‘creator’ of digital content, but also from ‘consumer’ to ‘creator’ of digital spaces.
  • Whilst it is hard to establish any sort of online network that will ‘compete’ with Facebook, the process of setting up and running online discussion spaces (or even just exploring how to create pages and other spaces within Facerbook) can help young people gain critical skills for thinking about the online environment. And even if we don’t create Facebook replacement spaces, we need to raise awareness of the wider potential of the open Internet – beyond centralising and dominant media platforms.

I realise some of this is pretty demanding stuff. How many practitioners would feel they have the digital skills right now to set up and manage their own online spaces – working with open source software and servers to make space. Yet, if I go back to youth work values, and a vision of informal education as helping young people to be empowered in a digital world – it’s exactly some of these skills that workers and young people may need to be exploring together.

What do you think? Do we focus too much on Facebook?

 

(Image Credit – Webtreat ICONS Etc)

Reflections: Blended facilitation at Commonwealth Young Professionals Forum

[Summary: Reflective learning from an experience of blended facilitation at Commonwealth Local Government Young Professionals Forum]

I spent two fascinating days yesterday and Sunday with the Commonwealth Local Government Young Professionals Forum. It’s the first time that an event focussed on engaging under 35s (youth in Commonwealth contexts has a slightly broader definition than most contexts I’m used to working in…) has been organized alongside the main Commwealth Local Government Forum, which brings together 100s of delegates from local politics and government administrations. The main focus of the smaller (about 60 of us) Young Professionals Forum (#cypf11 on Twitter) was to draw out from discussions a series of recommendations to make to the main forum, sharing a young adult voice on issues of local economic development and on youth participation.

Below are some brief reflections on two parts of the process I was involved in working on…

1) Social media orientation & encouraging social reporting

On the Sunday afternoon at the start of the forum we ran a short session introducing the Ning network set up for the event, and offering people quick opportunities to think about different social media tools that could be used for social reporting the event. I ran through posting blog posts and photos to the online network; gave an overview of how twitter could be used at events; and talked about vox-pop style video interviews. Everyone was encouraged to use their own equipment for social reporting; although as not everyone had devices available in the session we had a few practice/interactive activities that didn’t need technology there.

The first, asking people to think about the headline of a blog post they might write during or after the forum, generated some really good ideas – and the suggested headlines that delegates shared revealed a lot about their interests and aims for the event (e.g. ‘Best practices in youth entrepreneurship’, or imagining the post they would like to write after the forum ‘Local Government Forum accepts youth recommendations’).

The second activity, inviting people to practice vox-pop style interviewing of a partner sitting with them, also got people talking and sharing ideas for the event (and felt very similar to a standard ice-breaker, albeit with the addition of getting people’s permission to record them, and trying to manage a camera whilst talking).

On reflection:

  • A number of delegates commented on the usefulness of a social media introduction. Whilst almost all the young professionals taking part were familiar with blogging, and many had twitter accounts etc., many had not considered how to use these effectively in a conference context (for example, the use of tagging or hash-tags on Twitter was new to a number of people). Given digital communication and sharing messages online can be a key advocacy tool for the messages coming from the forum, a half-hour spent pointing to how digital tools could be used seemed to be useful investment of time.
  • Even with a good introduction, social reporting still needs facilitating. I switched my attention to the real-time collaboration, and running an afternoon workshop on open data in the commonwealth, and hadn’t formed a dedicated social reporting team. As delegates also got more involved in recommendations drafting, social media activity started to drop off and potentially a lot of stories and case studies that would have been useful to digitally share may have been missed.
  • My main take-away is to explore how the social media introduction could be integrated with ice-breakers and introductions. The blog post activity could be combined effectively with an expectation or aim-setting activity; and the vox-pop practice with an ice-breaker. Sometime to try next time…

2) Real-time collaboration for statement drafting

The process of drafting a text (statements or recommendations) from an international youth fora is an interesting one. Delegates vary in their experience of political processes, in the backgrounds they come from, and in the degree to which they are present representing a specific group or constituency – either by virtue of a formal mandate (e.g. elected youth representatives; leaders of organizations or networks), or informally adopting a representative role – or to which they solely represent and feed their own views into the process. Bringing together diverse views and voices into a text which can potentially influence policy making, and be used as an advocacy tool, is practically challenging.

There are all sorts of general process issues to be addressed in statement drafting (for example, the way in which processes generally start with a blank sheet of paper, rather than seeking to build on past statements), but one practical one we tried to address at CLGF was the process of typing up the statement itself. I’ve sat in a youth hostel late into the night before along with about 20 other people crowded round a laptop quibbling over phrases and wordings, all whilst one person: the person at the keyboard, acts as facilitator and gatekeeper of the document. At CLGF, instead of typing into documents on individual laptops, we took advantage of Cardiff City Hall’s free Wifi to get everyone typing into Google Documents – made public for anyone to edit – but with a rapporteur in each working group taking main responsibility for typing up their notes. As we moved from individual thematic working groups generating ideas, to the process of drafting a final statement, we moved into one single shared document to edit.

It might be a bit premature to assess how the process has worked, as I’m writing this as the second day of CYPF is starting (alas I’ve had to leave early) and there is still work to be done on the statement – but the process raised a number of interesting learning points.

Some reflections:

  • From one laptop the facilitation team were able to get an overview of the points emerging from different groups by looking at all the different docs, and to point out overlaps – either adding notes into the Google documents – or going to talk to specific groups (spread out in different parts of the room / different rooms) to suggest making connections with another group on a particular point.
  • We could use that access to the developing drafts to visualise emerging themes. For example, at lunchtime I put together Wordles of the drafts which a number of delegates noted were useful in getting a sense of the discussions and record being generated. http://network.cyec.org.uk/profiles/blogs/drafting-recommendations
  • Whilst allowing multiple editors changes the power dynamic associated with one person at a keyboard – by allowing anyone with an Internet access device in a group to directly clarify and update notes – one delegate pointed out that it can lead to (a) some people being left out, as screens become personal again rather than shared; (b) people making edits direct without discussing them – missing on opportunities for dialogue across the table (this matches my experience of sitting in silence at IGF10 drafting a statement in etherpad with a number of other delegates – all the interaction taking place in chat and on the text directly).One practice way to address some of this may be to try and project each document up on a shared screen as well – and to think about having different ‘editing policies’ (possibly enforced with the document sharing settings) for different stages of the process (e.g. during initial idea creation anyone can add anything; during refining thematic papers edits should be discussed; during final changes to a statement, all changes should be approved by the group before being made to the text).
  • The documents we were using were set so that anyone in theory could access, read and edit them – even if not at the forum. This was mainly for ease (no need to get people’s e-mail addresses to share the document with them), but also seems to me to be a good thing – potentially enabling more enhanced participation and allowing expertise and ideas to be brought in from across the world – regardless of people’s ability to travel to the conference. We didn’t exploit this possibility – and how it could fit into the general processes of statement drafting would need more thought – but it’s an exciting one.
  • The cost (or lack of) Internet access in hotels is still a big barrier to this process. I was able to set up a MiFi to allow a couple of people back at the hotel to carry on working on the draft, but a lack of affordable WiFi suddenly limited the breadth of possible collaboration.

Seeing how quickly and easily delegates adopted real-time collaborative documents for drafting in a general conference (I was wondering if the YCIG experience was unique to a technology conference), I’m keen to spend more time looking at effective and empowering facilitation techniques in this space – and to see how the process could be developed more.

Diplomacy labs

We’ve only scratched the surface of how digital tools can transform youth fora, and other international gatherings. However, the ingredients of a transformed way of doing business are coming together: remote (or enhanced) participation; understanding the digital record as a fundamental vehicle for driving outcomes of an event and real-time collaboration tools. I certainly hope institutions like CLGF, CYPG and the upcoming Commonwealth Youth Forum in Australia in October take up the challenge of innovating and living out the common conference platform claim that “we need to change the way politics is done”.

 

Update: Photo Credit to Dan from A-Leap (fab participation, youth and learning people in Wales) for the picture in this post.

Sprinkled stats and the search for data…

[Summary: Data-driven vs. data guided change-making. Reposted from the new Making a Difference With Data website]

I woke up to a tweet this morning from @YoungAdvisors pointing me to their new ‘Big Book of Stats’ and ‘What’s the Real Cost of Cutting’ resources – bringing together statistics from across the youth sector in a quick-to-skim PDF.

I got in touch with Gary Buxton, Young Advisors Chief Exec to ask a few questions about the stats:

Q: What inspired your to collect the figures you have gathered?
When times are tough its even more important to share and collaborate.  Our social goals are about creating good opportunities for young people. Having charities, social enterprises and young people all replicating work is distracting and reduces everyone’s ability to deliver. If we all shared a little bit more, we’d all be greater than the sum of our parts.

Q: How easy was it to find the data and numbers you needed?
Both pieces were pretty difficult to pull together.  It became a bit of an evening hobby! Stats came from old NYA policy briefings, NCVYS, Twitter, Facebook, Private Consultancy Companies, New Economics Foundation, Prince’s Trust and government sites etc etc.  I still really want how much it costs when a young person is excluded from school!

Q: How are you now planning to use these figures?
We use the stats for writing bids and helping the young people we work with write bids and presentations that are well informed and referenced.  Knowing your data helps young people make reasoned and compelling solutions to community problems.  We wanted to open the data to others who might find it helpful so everyone can work smart and not hard, keep delivering great work, but most of all, make a good case to decision makers, councillors and MPs about how important investing in young people is and the risk of pulling funding from services that young people regard as important.

As the ‘Sprinkled Statistics’ recipe over in the Open Data Cook Book suggests, sometimes using open data is as simple as backing up an argument with the numbers – with no need for fancy visualisation or mash-ups. Resources like Young Advisors Big Book of Stats can make that easier for other groups.

But, as Gary notes, even just collecting the statistics you need from government reports, let alone getting access to raw data to slice and explore it in different ways, can be tricky. And as Paul Clarke questions in a blog post today, is getting the data always the most important part of campaigning for a change? Whilst we might imagine there are clear ‘facts’ about the cost of school exclusions, or patient to nurse ratios, these statistics do not come solely from direct measurement, but are based on calculations from different datasets, and, importantly, rest upon definitions (what is an exclusion; what counts as a direct or indirect cost of exclusion; do you count all the time a nurse is on the ward, or only the time they are available for patient care (not paperwork). As Paul puts it:

…does the cause need the data? Does the search for data delay the obvious? Could the open data revolution sometimes obfuscate more than enlighten? While we’re arguing over reporting standards, boundary definitions and data feeds, real people are hurting and starving.

So where does this leave us? Having access to statistics, data and figures at a local level can certainly help strengthen those advocating for change. And knowing the numbers can inform bids, proposals and smarter working. But perhaps key here is to see campaigning for change as ‘data guided’ and ‘data backed’ rather than ‘data-driven’.

Making a difference with data means knowing how to use it as a tool, but one amongst many in the change-makers toolbox.

Open data quick links: cook books; aid data; campaign camps; MADwData

[Summary: A couple of quick open data links]

The Open Data Cook Book now has a new look and a few more recipes – providing step by step instructions for working with open data. It’s also now Wikified – so anyone can sign-up to edit and add recipes. So, if you’ve got ideas for how people can use open data in creative ways – head over and add some recipes.

On the topic of Making a Difference With Data the new MADwData website is packed full of links and analysis on open data to support change at a local level, particularly organised around different sectors: health, local authorities, housing, transport, crime & education.  I’m editing the education section, and have been exploring how open the EduBase dataset really is. Take a look though at the fantastic content from the other editors – all giving some great overviews of the state of data for change in different contexts.

In the MADwData forum Vicky Sargent has been asking about the use of data in library closure campaigns. I’ve been in touch with a lot of campaigning organisations recently who sense that there is real potential for using open data as part of campaigns – but unsure exactly how it should work and how to start engaging with data (and open data advocates asking the same questions from the other direction). Hopefully we’ll be digging into exactly these questions, and providing some practical learning opportunities and take-away ideas at the upcoming Open Data Campaigning Camp in Oxford on 24th March. It’s tacked onto the end of the E-Campaigning Forum, and I’m co-organising with Rolf Kleef and Javier Ruiz. Free places are still left for organisations interested in spending day of hands-on learning exploring how data could help in campaigning against cuts; on environmental issues; and in international development campaigns and funding.

And talking of development funding… (not only a post of outward links; seemless links internally as well!) – last week the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) Standard‘s first version was full agreed. I had the pleasure of working with Development Initiatives on a demonstrator of how IATI data could be visualised, the results of which are available on AidInfoLabs as the IATI Data Explorer - allowing you to pick any country and dig into details of where DFID UK Government Aid spending has gone there – and, where the data is available, digging into the individual transactions.

Skills for the job: digital literacy

In the lead up to the Youth Work Online Month of Action I’ve got an article in Children and Young People Now’s ‘skills for the job’ section, talking about digital literacy. Here’s how it starts:

A lot of what we hear about young people and the internet is focused on e-safety. But digital literacy is about a lot more than that. Digital literacy involves being able to navigate the digital world – making the most of the many opportunities it provides for accessing information, creating connections, having a say, being part of communities and developing skills and knowledge for now and for the future.

Developing young people’s digital literacy needs professionals to engage with the online world – supporting young people to move beyond narrow use of a few social networking websites or apps – to discover the full potential of the internet as a global information resource. It also involves the development of critical skills – enabling internet users to choose what information to engage with. One key part of digital literacy is to know when to multi-task, when to focus, when to be connected, and when to disconnect.

You can read the full article over on the CYPN Website.

In the upcoming Month of Action we’ll be focusing a lot more on these themes – working to build broader networks of practitioners focussed on all aspects of the digital world for young people.

P.S. I’m still on the lookout for a venue for the Month of Action’s unConference. We’re looking for somewhere in London, available on Saturday 16th April, with good Wifi, room for 100 people in break-out spaces, and crucially, either free or low-cost. If you know someone who could sponsor the event by sharing their venue/offices/meeting rooms for the day, do get in touch.

Sourcing raw data… (drafting the open data cook book)

Open Data Cook Book LogoI’m at the Local by Social South West ‘Apps for Communities’ event in Bristol today, doing some prototyping work on the Open Data Cook Book. Listening to people working through how to find data – and trying to search for data myself, I thought I would try and map out all the different places I’ve been looking to track down different open datasets. So – with a sprinkling of recipe book metaphors – here’s a draft for comment of key places to track down open data (focussed on UK government data)…

Sourcing raw data

Finding the right ingredients for your data creation is often the hardest part. You will often have to mix-and-match from the approaches below to get all the data and information you need.

1) Search the supermarkets – the data catalogues & data stores

There are a growing number of data catalogues that bring together listings of published open data (and there are also now data marketplaces that can help you find commercially licensed data as well – so be sure to check the details of the data you find).

Data catalogues often have a particular focus – and no one catalogue can tell you about all the data out there.

CKAN.net is a catalogue of data from many different sources. Good to check if you are not quite sure where the dataset you want might be found to see if someone has already created a ‘packaged‘ version of it.

Data.gov.uk is the UK Governments data catalogue, which aims to include listings of all open datasets in the public sector. It’s early days yet, but it boasts over 4,600 dataset listings, many of which link direct to spreadsheets and data downloads.

Guardian World Data Store makes it easy to search across a range of different government open data catalogues – browsing data by country and format.

Your local authority might have a data store, or at least a data page on their website. London has http://data.london.gov.uk and you can find a list of other local open data web pages through the ‘All Councils’ listing at OpenlyLocal.com.

Publicdata.eu is a new catalogue bringing together data from right across Europe.

2) Specialist independents – data stores

Where the supermarkets are stacking the datasets high, and sharing them free – there might be a specialist in your area of interest – working hard to source and bring together the finest data they can. Fortunately, most of them provide the data for free too.

OpenlyLocal.com is focussed on making local council information accessible. You can find details of local council spending for many authorities alongside details of council meetings and councillors that has been scrumped and scraped from the respective websites for you. Most of the raw data is available through an API – so you might need to explore a few new skills to get at it though.

Timetric.com are specialists when it comes to time series data. If you can plot it on a graph over time, chances are they’ve taken the dataset, tidied it up, and providing ways to search and browse for it – with csv spreadsheet downloads of the raw data.

Do you have a specialist independent you go to for data? Tell us about them in the comments.

3) Foraging – searching for the data

If the data you want isn’t available pre-packaged and catalogued, you might need to head out foraging across the Internet. There is a lot of open data in the wild – you just need to know how to spot it.

GetTheData.org makes a great first port of call to see if other data-foragers have already found a good spot to get the data you are after. It’s a community website full of requests for data, and conversations about good places to find it. Plus, if your own foraging doesn’t turn up anything, you can come back and pose your question to the community here later.

SearchTry searching the web for the topic you are interested in. Perhaps add ‘data’ as an extra key word. When you read news articles or web pages that appear to be based on data, take note of the names of the data sources they mention and plug that back into a search. Oftentimes that will lead you to some data you might be able to use.

Think-tank websites, academic researcher web pages and even newspaper sites can all host lots of datasets. Just make sure you find out all you can about the provenance of the information before you use it!

Deep searchingYou can use a standard Google Search to look for data published in common office formats hosted on a particular web domain: your local council or university for example. All you need are two handy operators:

  • The ‘site:’ operator on Google restricts searches to only show results from a particular domain;
  • The ‘filetype:’ operator only returns files of a particular type.

Using those together you can construct searches like ‘filetype:xls site:oxford.gov.uk’ to find all the Excel spreadsheets that Google has indexed on the Oxford City Council website.

4) Scrumping – screen-scrape the data

It’s not uncommon to find the data you need… only it’s just out of reach. Perhaps it’s in a table on a web page when you want it in the sort of table you can load into a spreadsheet to sort and chart. Or it might be spread across lots of different web pages and files. That’s where screen-scraping comes in – creating small computer scripts that turn structured information on a website into raw data.

There are recipes that explain the details of screen-scraping coming in the cook book, and you can go screen-scrape scrumping with a variety of different tools.

Google Spreadsheetsusing a special formula you can grab tables and lists from other websites direct into your spreadsheet (recipe).

Scraper Wiki – helps you get started created advanced scrapers which they will run every day to grab information from websites and turn it into accessible raw data (recipe).

5) Special order – FOI

Perhaps you have found that no-one stocks the data you need – not even in places you can forage or scrump for it. If the data comes from a public body, then it might be time to explore putting in a special request for it using the Freedom of Information Act.

WhatDoTheyKnow.com is a service that makes it easy to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to a local authority, government department or other public body. You have a right to ask authorities for a copy of the information and data they hold, and you can ask for it to me returned as raw data. Search WhatDoTheyKnow to see if anyone has requested the data you want already, and if not, put in your request. (Often if data is available on WhatDoTheyKnow it will be locked up in PDFs. You might need to crowd-source the process of turning it into structured raw data, although there are a few tools and approaches that might help turn PDFs into data programatically)

The Public Sector Information Unlocking Service available at http://unlockingservice.data.gov.uk/ provides a root for requesting data is opened up by the Data.gov.uk team. It’s not backed by the legal framework of FOI, but may play a role in data requests under the currently debated ‘Right to Data’ legislation.

IsItOpenData.org provides a useful tool for asking non-public bodies to share their data as open data, or to clarify the licensing.

6) Home grown – research and crowdsourcing

Some data simply doesn’t exist yet – but you can create a raw dataset through research, and through crowd-sourcing, inviting others to help you research.

Simple spreadsheets - if you are systematically working through a research task, keep your results in a spreadsheet. See the section on raw data for ideas about how to structure it well.

Google Forms - available through http://docs.google.com allows you to create an online form that anyone can fill in, with all the responses going direct into a spreadsheet for you to use. You might be able to get supporters to research for you and collaborative build up a useful dataset.


Always check the label

Is the data you have found licensed for re-use? Whilst you might get away with cooking up some foraged raw data for your own consumption without checking out the details – when you re-publish data and share it with others you need to be sure you have permission to do so.

Remember as well to keep a list of the ingredient you use, and where you got them from, so you can publish a full list of sources along with your creation.)

Worked example: A simple search, with many steps

Sadly we’re not yet at the stage where you can easily get all the data you need delivered to your door – so most projects will involve some searching around.

For example: I was recently looking for data on library locations in Bristol. I started at the data supermarkets, searching data.gov.uk for ‘libraries’. I found a few datasets listed, but the links were broken, so I ended up at a dead end. Next I turned to the Guardian datastore, but that wasn’t very helpful either – so I looked at GetTheData.org to see if anyone else had been looking for library data. Fortunately they had, and their conversations pointed me towards a few possible data sources. Again though, I ended up almost a a dead end – I could find a list of planned library closures, but not a dataset of all the libraries. However, I did find a link to the Bristol Council website, and on browsing the site I came across a listing of libraries in a web-page – so I turned to a little scrumping – using Google Spreadsheets to import the web-page table into a spreadsheet table that I could manipulate and work with. Working through the list of data sources above I was searching for about 15 minutes – following my nose to finally get to the raw ingredients I needed for some data creations.

Digital Futures – Trends in Technology, Youth and Policy

[Summary: What technologies will affect services for young people in 2011? Presentation, worksheet and reflections on a workshop]

I’ve read a lot of blog posts and watched a lot of presentations about technology trends, and future technologies that everyone needs to be aware of – but they can often feel pretty distant from the reality of frontline public services trying to make sense of how new technologies affect their work. So when I was offered the opportunity to run a workshop on ‘digital futures’ at the children’s services conference of a national children’s charity, right at the start of 2011, I thought it would provide an interesting opportunity to explore different ways of talking about and making sense of technology trends.

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