Reflections on open development from OKFest

[Summary: trying to capture some of the depth of discussion from a session on open (international) development at the Open Knowledge Festival]

“I don’t have a problem with the word open, I have a problem with the word development.”
Philip Thigo, in visions of open development panel at OKFest.

To international development practitioners, or communities receiving development aid, much of the ‘visions of open development’ discussion at the Open Knowledge Festival will have sounded familiar. Call for more participatory processes have a long history on the development field; and countless conferences have been spent focussing on the need for greater inclusion of local communities in setting priorities, and in holding institutions to account for what they deliver. Yet, for the Open Knowledge movement, where many are just now discovering and exploring the potential application of open technologies, data and knowledge to challenges of human development in the global South, engaging with well established critiques of development is important. Open data, open knowledge, open source and open hardware could all potentially be used in the pursuit of centralised, top-down models of development, rather than supporting emancipatory and participatory development practice; highlighting the need to ensure vision of open development import thinking and experience from development practice over recent decades if open development is to avoid leading to missed opportunities, or even leading to oppressive forms of development practice.

Yet, articulating open development involves more than importing established critical perspectives into the application of open data, open technologies and open knowledge to development problems. It involves working out both how the application of these ‘open’ technologies can impact on development practice, and identifying new cross-cutting values, rules and institutional arrangements that can guide their adoption. As our panel in Helsinki explored, this exploration will have to deal with a number of tensions.

Decentralising development?
Linda Raftree opened the panel with an input that talked of the ‘horizontality’ of networked communication. Linda suggested that, whilst open development is not about the technology, it has much to learn from the structures and organising principles we find in contemporary technologies. The Internet, with it’s networked and broadly peer-to-peer architecture, in which anyone with access can participate without prior permission offers a potential template for structuring development co-operation. Karina Banfi picked up the theme in arguing against ‘top-down’ development, and advocating consultation and active engagement of communities in setting development priorities and processes.

An illustration of the potential difference between centralised and decentralised development at the infrastructure level was offered by Urs Riggenbach of Solar Fire, who described the development of open source hardware for small-scale hydro-electric power generation. Urs argued that, rather than massive cost large-scale Dams projects, with their visible ecological impacts, potential to displace communities, and scope for corruption in their contracting arrangements, communities could make use of Intellectual Property free designs to construct their own small-scale solutions.

There might be a distinction here to draw between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ decentralisation. In the former, citizens are given access to information (perhaps via data) and channels through which to feedback to those who control budgets and power. Decision making and ultimate executive responsibility remains large scale, and final authority invested in representative institutions. In the later, decision making and executive responsibility are devolved down to the local level with open knowledge used to support communities to be more self-reliant. Underlying this (as underlying all choices about how we practice openness) is a political choice about the level at which communities should co-ordinate their activities, and the mechanisms through which that co-ordination should take place: from formal states, to voluntary associations, to distributed ‘market’ mechanisms.

Although Tariq Kochkhar suggested that open development achieved would mean that ‘all people have the freedom to make choices over their own development’, panelists and participants from the audience emphasised a number of times that it is important not to ignore power, and to recognise that open development shifts where power lies, but does not necessarily decentralise or remove it altogether. In fact, this is something the Internet potentially shows us too. Although theoretically a decentralised medium, in practice there are a small number of companies who wield significant power online, such as the search services that not only act as a gateway to available information, but also in their choices about what to index or not, create incentives for other actors on the Web to shape their content in particular ways.

Rules for openness
I’ve suggested that most notions of openness are articulated in opposition to some set of closed arrangements, but that does not mean that openness involves just the negation of those arrangements. Rather, openness may need it’s own rules to function. In our panel, Blane Harvey emphasised, openness is not the same as de-regulation, although, as Jyrki Pulkkinen reminded us, the term open may be in active use with such connotations, as in the case of discussing an ‘open and free markets’.

The need to scaffold openness with rules and institutions if it is to lead to positive development has gone relatively unexplored in past discussions. Yet is an important debate for the open development community to engage in. Rules may be needed to protect the privacy and security of certain development actors through non-disclosure of information (Pernilla Nastfor’s of the Swedish International Development Agency highlighted the potential risks the human rights activists they fund may face in repressive regimes if full details of these projects were transparent). Rules may also be needed to ensure citizens can benefit from open knowledge, and to manage the distribution of benefits from openness.

Linda Raftree raised the question of whether the open development discourse is too often one of ‘trickle down openness’, where the fact that new technologies are securing greater openness for some, is assumed to mean that more openness for all will eventually result via some trickle-down process. This echoes the critique from Michael Gurstein that open data risks simply empowering the empowered. Some of the rules needed, like Right to Information guarantees, rather than just openness as an optional extra granted by governments, are well known – but there may be other rules required to ensure the benefits of open information and technologies are more equally distributed. For example Jyrki Pulkkinen noted that ‘open innovation’ was a key engine to convert open knowledge into enterprise and activity that can work for development, and yet so often innovation is frustrated by restrictive intellectual property and patent laws that create a thicket innovators may struggle to get through, even when much of the knowledge they need to innovate has been made more accessible. In a similar vein, Jyrki noted that open information in the political domain should not just be about freedom to receive, but should also open outwards into freedoms of expression that need to be guaranteed.

Before moving on from a consideration of the rules, regulations and institutions that enable or constrain equitable outcomes from openness, it is worth remembering Lessig’s phrase ‘Code as law’. Many of the ‘rules’ which will affect how open development operates in practice may not be within formal legal or regulatory frameworks, but may exist built into the technical artifacts and networks which deliver open content, data, information and hardware designs.

Culture, structure, policy
The importance of culture change was another theme that came out during our panel. Tariq Khokhar suggested that the World Bank’s policies on open data had brought new actors into the bank, creating the potential for a positive feedback loop, slowly shifting the culture of the organisation. Though Tariq also highlighted that big organisational change may require ‘principles of open development’: organisational tools that can be used to determine when projects are ‘open development’ projects or not – to avoid the latest buzz-word being applied to any project. Asked about how far development has shifted in recent years, Philip Thigo focussed on a perceived increase in the accessibility of staff from large institutions, and how more doors were open for conversation. Perhaps underplayed in our discussions so far has been the influence of e-mail, social media, search and generally accessible online information in creating more ‘open communications’ between development donors and others.

An input from Anahi Ayala Iacucci also got us thinking about the processes of development aid decision making, and the tensions between a desire for locally owned and defined projects, and a requirement from donors to have clear project plans and deliverables. Creating a culture supportive of emergent project plans is a challenge (as the aptly named ‘IKM Emergent‘ programme discovered over it’s five year duration), and it is possible that a focus on transparency and accountability, without looking carefully at the balance of power and who is doing the calling to account, could lead to a greater focus on fixed project plans rather than a greater freedom and flexibility, and openness to local pressures and demands. As technological and open information interventions of open development unfold, tracking how they feed into culture change in positive and negative ways is likely to be instructive.

Next steps in the conversation
The last post I started on Open Development, I didn’t think I would reach any conclusions, but I ended with a rough minimal description of what I saw to be some essential elements of open development. This time, following an incredibly rich discussion at the Open Knowledge Festival, I find I’ve got a sense of many more jigsaw puzzle pieces of open development –  from the role of rules and policies; to the tensions of decentralisation – yet I’m less sure how these fit together, or how far there is a clear concept of open development to be articulated.

In debriefing from the Open Knowledge Festival, one of the general feelings amongst the open development track team was that bringing together these conversations in Helsinki was important to open up a space in the Open Knowledge movement to recognise how the themes being discussed had impacts beyond the US and Europe. It may be that open development is ultimately about providing a space to critically bridge between knowledge and perspectives from development, and ideas and perspectives from the diverse networks of open access, open hardware, open data, open culture and open knowledge currently developing across the world. In any case, as the conversation moves forward hopefully we can combine the practical and critical edge that discussions at OKFest displayed…

Reflections on an open panel

[Summary: learning notes from an experimental approach to running a panel at Open Knowledge Festival]

How do you hold an open discussion about ‘open development’ in a theatre-style auditorium? That’s what we tried to explore at the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki with an experimental ‘open panel’. Our goal was to combine input from experts and key contributors to the field, with a format that recognised that expertise and relevant insights were not just held by those on the pre-selected panel, but was also to be found amongst the audience in the room. The panel design we came up with draw upon ideas from ‘Fishbowl’ conversations, and involved creating space for members of the audience to join the panel after the initial inputs from pre-selected panelists.

The Format

Here’s a quick overview of the format we used:

1) We had six pre-selected panelists, each speaking for a maximum of five minutes without slides to introduce their views on the topic

2) We then opened the floor to inputs from the audience. The audience were told they could either come forward an ask a question, or could join the panel, taking a seat on stage to put forward their view. There were 10 seats on the stage overall, creating space for four at least four audience panelists.

3) There was the option of anyone (initial panelists, or those joining from the audience) leaving the panel if they felt they had said enough and wanted to create space for anyone else.

4) We also invite questions via Twitter, and ran a number of online polls to gather views. (We originally considered using handset voting, but decided against this for simplicity)

You can find the short presentation that I used to introduce the format here.

Instead of, as planned, having three podium microphones for panelists to come forward to, we passed a roving microphone along the panel.

How did it work?

Overall I believe it was a very successful panel: keeping inputs from panelists short kept the panel moving and let us cover a lot of ground. Listening back to the panel (LINK) it seems we had a reasonably good balance of voices. A number of points and themes were developed over the course of the session, although interwoven into one another – rather than as explicit threads.

When we opened the floor for audience contributions, initially contributions were just in the form of questions to the panel, rather than people taking up the empty seats on stage. It took some encouragement for people to ‘join’ the panel, although those participants who did join gave noticeably different contributions: being sat down alongside other panelists seems to really change the tone of the contribution someone makes  – potentially bringing about much more relaxed and discursive contributions.  With only four people choosing to take up the extra seats on the panel by the end of the session we didn’t get to see what would happen when space ran out, and if anyone would choose to leave.

The online voting and Twitter input in this case got relatively little traffic.

Learning points and reflection

I would experiment with this format again, although I would consider removing the  option of just asking a question, and making the only ways for audience to input as either taking a seat on the panel, or asking questions via Twitter (getting people to take a seat and offer their input from being seated with the panel is I think the key; even if they focus on asking a question and leave immediately after it is answered).

We had aimed for a relatively diverse pre-selected panel of speakers. We need to think more about whether the format risks the overall inputs being less diverse, as the most confident may be more likely to choose to come and join the panel (with a bias greater than occurs with who choose to come forward and ask questions). The facilitator perhaps needs to have some control over the queues coming to contribute to ensure a balance of voices.

Having the roving microphone handed along the panel provided a good way of encouraging short contributions, and getting the panel to self-manage who was going to speak next. I stood outside the panel as facilitator, and at a number of points simply told the panelists how long they had to answer a question, and invited them to self-organise within that time to ensure everyone who wanted to go to speak. This appeared to be fairly effective, and to keep the conversation flowing.

Whilst we decided not to use keypad voting, I would consider doing this at a future session where keypads are available, if only as a good way to get people arriving early to come down and fill in rows at the front of the auditorium, rather than hanging around the back.

If you were involved in the panel, in the audience, or you’ve watched the recording – then I’d really welcome your feedback and reflections too… drop in a comment below…


There’s mileage in the open panel format, and it’s certainly something I’ll be looking to explore more in future.

Participation, enterprise, legitimacy and power: reflections from the Dyroy Seminar

[Summary: Links and reflections from a day live-blogging with Web Scientists in North Norway]

The Dyroy context
Web Science Students (with the socks we were given on arrival to keep us warm inside the Arctic Circle)I’ve spent the last few days with a group of Web Science students in the community of Dyroy, in Northern Norway, about two hours by boat from the regional capital Tromso, and located around 69 degrees North – inside the arctic circle. Dyroy, like many rural areas, is facing a tough challenges to maintain a vibrant community as opportunities for employment draw young people away towards the cities, and as old industries and trade decline. Yet, as we heard from the Norwegian Minister for the Regions at today’s Dyroy Seminar, the area is not one to simply shrug and let decline set in – but is an area where citizens have come together to find new ways to sustain and develop the community. Although electricity only reached much of Dyroy in the 1950s, the Old Trading Post where we were staying brought a phone line into the area in the mid 1800’s, and the modern development of Dyroy relies heavily on high-speed Internet connectivity (hence the Web Science connection…).

One of the ways the community comes together is through a bi-annual conference, exploring topics of interest to the local community. This year’s seminar focussed on youth – looking at issues of youth participation, as well as exploring questions of identity and sustainable entrepreneurship and employment. As Web Science students we were present to explore how the web could be used to amplify some of the discussions from the first day of the seminar, and to build new online connections between ideas from Dryoy and the wider world. The day before the seminar, we spent time with students at the local school, running a number of workshops, including one exploring how social media could be used to campaign on key issues.

You can find a wealth of live-blogging and social reporting from the seminar here, and on the Dyroy Seminar website you will find a number of Norwegian reports about our projects. However in this post I wanted to draw out just a few reflections about some of the key youth participation themes of the last two days, in a way that I hope will be helpful both for those who took part in Dryoy, and for the wider readership of this blog.

Participation, politics and power
The room with English translation - and our social reporting hubI was hopeful that in Norway, the first county to establish a Children’s Rights Ombudsman, that when I asked a group of 13 – 15 year old students if they were aware of their right to participate under Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that every hand would go up. However, translation issues aside, both in the school where we worked, and the seminar, ideas of participation did not appear to be explicitly rooted in the human rights of children and young people to have their views heard in matters that affect them. Building on a rights-based foundation is important to highlight (a) that children and young people’s participation needs to be about having an individual say, for example, in home life – as well as having a collective voice on community issues; (b) to recognise that all young people have participation rights, not just those who shout loudest or who get involved in formal structures.

Forms of participation that involve an individual expression of views can sit alongside participation in more formal politics: where debates are often concerned with the allocation of scarce resources. However, as a number of youth councillors, and young political party members debated during the seminar, it is important for young people engaged in political participation structures to be aware of the dangers of pursuing power for it’s own sake.

Structures, shared values and shared challenges
Much of the morning of the seminar involved discussion of how Norway is well on the way to having a Youth Council in every municipality, with the possibility of legislation to require Youth Council’s to be established. There was some debate over whether national requirements for youth representation would lead to an over-prescriptive set of structures, and whether instead flexibility was needed for each local area to develop it’s own youth participation approaches. The importance of handing over real power to youth fora was discussed, including mention of youth-led grant making (such as existed at scale in the UK with the, now sadly much rarer, Youth Opportunity Funds and Youth Capital Funds, and as still exists in other youth led grant making globally), or youth involvement in budgeting (or perhaps budget monitoring and advocacy, as a number of global youth participation projects are exploring).

In my experience of working on youth participation structures in the UK, when approaches are formalised it is important to recognise that there is no single structure that can support effective participation and representation, or that provides a suitable means of engagement for all young people. Rather, good participation involves a spread of interlinked approaches, from good complaint and feedback systems, through one-off-events and activities, to regular and structured representative structures. With the right design and active facilitation, online social media tools are potentially very effective to ‘bridge the gap’ between forms of one-off engagement, and more sustained engagement in local decision making.

Even with a good mix of approaches to youth participation, and many channels through which young people can get involve – without ‘shared values‘ being clearly articulated, and a wide shared understanding in the community that children and young people are equal citizens – participation of all forms risks becoming tokenism.

One of the peculiar properties of youth participation structures over other participation structures, is the relatively rapid turnover of membership. By definition, one can only be a member of a youth council for quite a short period of time compared perhaps to the main council. This leads to a need for both shared values, and participation structures, to be regularly revisited, revived and regenerated. It can also lead to a structural disadvantage for young people seeking to express their views – as they have to spend comparatively longer picking up the background knowledge needed to engage in particular debates, or may have less access to prior experience that could support them to secure the outcomes they want.

I’ve long been interested in the potential of the web to create a stronger institutional memory for youth campaigns: with social reporting and regular online reporting of youth activities generating an open record that future young participants can pick up – able to benefit from the experience of their predecessors. However, although it is often claimed that the Internet never forgets, in practice, keeping content updated and discoverable over many years turns out to be very challenging. For example, content from the Youth Council Website I developed and maintained over 10 years ago is now only available in the Internet Archive, where you would only find it if you knew where to look, and the archive of Oxford’s Social Responsible Investment campaign is scattered across a number of sites. Even if it was easy to deposit content from youth participation on the web as part of a long-term archive, we need better approaches to curate it so that future generations of youth representatives and campaigners can quickly find the intelligence they need to strengthen their hands.

Shared challenges
Having drawn on a rather oppositional idea of youth participation above: with the need to strengthen the voices of young people in contrast to those of adults, I want to step back and example whether that opposition is useful. There is a common platitude in youth participation events to talk about ‘young people as the future’. This is often met with the reply from young people that ‘we are part of the present too’, which is a very fair response. However, what concerns me more in this claim is that it often covers up an implied abdication of responsibility on the part of adults. By saying ‘we need the innovative ideas of young people to sort out future problems’, adults can be letting themselves off the hook for also being part of creating those innovative solutions. It can be a way of pushing the solving of the problem off into the future, perpetuating the generational injustice that has seen those currently in power create environmental problems, burden states with debt, and enable vastly unequal development (an accusation I target more at political leaders in the UK than Norway here).

In many cases the challenge is not to listen to the voice of youth, but to find ways for people to be involved in shared problem solving, regardless of age or background.

Entrepreneurship and legitimacy
Anders Waage Nilsen took us away from participation structures in his presentation to the seminar, highlighting how, particularly with the web, it is possible for people of all ages to self-organise, bringing an entrepreneurial spirit to problem solving. This approach, rooted in an impatience and desire to see change, suggests that young people should not wait around to have access to formal decision making power from which they can call for alternative models of economic and environmental development – but suggests that young people should use their networks to actively create the sorts of future they want.

The forms of ad-hoc social innovation enable by the web, by new practices and emerging norms of self-organising truly offer great opportunities to attack persistent social challenges, but when they become one of our primary modes of acting they also raise challenges of legitimacy. How far can, and should, communities (from local communities like Dyroy, to national communities like Norway) exercise collective self-determination over what happens amongst them? When the ability to take advantage of technologies to self-organise is not conditioned only by access to technology, but also by wider access to social and financial capital, how can a community avoid those with money and networks over-dominating the shape of local development by simply getting on with what they want to do outside of representative structures?

I’m not at all suggesting here that social innovation should be curtailed, and I would generally celebrate the forms of entrepreneurial social action Nilsen described. Yet, the most that ‘political action’ is conducted through ad-hoc actions, the more we need to find new ways to respond to it. To some extent our representative structures are about striking a balance of power, and as power shifts in the network society, we may need to develop new ways to regulate it’s legitimate exercise.

Web Science reflections: bridging with artifacts and agency
I’ve already mentioned a few ways the web might impact upon youth participation: from helping maintain an institutional memory for youth fora, to supporting new models of social action and problem solving.

In our workshop with students yesterday, we used the Social Media Game (with some extra cards made specially for this workshop), to explore how students might use the web to campaign on issues that affected them – from the poor quality of some roads, to a lack of activities, and issues relating to drugs and crime. A number of the strategies for using the web the young people put together involved strong use of online and offline channels – recognising that, for example, the support gathered on a Facebook page might need to be expressed through a letter to a politician to get their attention, or nothing that out-and-about exploration of problems with potholes could be taken online through videos and shared to raise awareness of the problem.

As we have also been exploring acting as social reporters today, bridging involves a mix of technical artifacts (tweets, blog posts, video clips and so-on), digital networks, and human connections. Understanding how these interact, and the different dynamics that affect each (from the design of content and messages, to the structure of digital networks, and the social psychology of sharing content) should be an important part of the contribution Web Science makes to thinking about participation.

Where next in a social reporting cycle?

For many of the Web Science DTC students, today was a first taste of live blogging and social reporting. Even for a single track conference, live blogging and social reporting generate a lot of content. Unlike events such as the Internet Governance Forum, where social reporting may be part of facilitating engagement in the live event, in the case of the Dyroy seminar, our social reporting has served more to amplify and create a record of the event. Working out sustainable ways to create a legacy out of this content is a challenge. For me, a first reflective blog post is a way to draw out some themes to reflect on more – that might emerge into future writing. However, with such a wealth of content generated through today – we do need to think more about how we might curate elements of it to further share ideas and debates from today’s event.

What is Open Development?

In just over a week I’ll be at the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki, where thanks to the work of an amazing team of volunteers, we will have a series of sessions taking place under the banner of ‘Open Development‘, looking at where Open Knowledge themes meet international development.

In one of those sessions we’ll be asking what we really mean by open development: inviting participants to share their own responses to the question ‘What does open development mean to you?’. I realised that, for all the time I’ve spent moderating the OKF open-development working group’s mailing list, and inputting to the OKFest Open Development stream, I’ve not had a clear answer to that question. I’m hoping that next weeks session will help address that, but in advance I thought it would be useful to jot down some reflections on how I might answer the question right now.

Of course, as luck would have it, I’m at just that stage in the PhD process of working out the questions, but not yet getting to the simplified crisp answers, so what follows is some thinking aloud, rather than a set answer…

The essence of open

I’ve written before about the way that the prefix ‘open’ does not necessarily pick out some common property across it’s wide usage for ‘open access’, ‘open source’, ‘open data’ and ‘open content’, ‘open government’, and ‘open development’ – but at best can be seen as offering these labels a broad ‘family resemblance‘. There is an important distinction to observe between openness focussed on artifacts such as data, source code, or academic articles, and openness of processes, such as democracy and development. Formal definitions of the former may tend to be concerned more with the legal or technical status of the artifact, whereas definitions of the latter may focus on questions of who is participating, how they are allowed to participate.

In so far as we can find a common family trait amongst ‘the opens’, then I would suggest ‘access and permission’ is a good candidate. Openness should remove barriers to access, and should grant relevant permissions that allow either use of an artifact, or participation in a process.

Note that whilst the artifact and process distinction might be possible to make at the level of formal definitions, many times when terms like ‘open source’, or ‘open government’ are deployed, they are used to refer to refer to both artifacts and processes. For example, we might use open source to refer to the processes of the open source community and movement, rather than just the properties of the source code itself; or we might use the term open government to refer to the papers and documents of government, as well as to participative processes that let citizens input into governance. Open artifacts may in some cases be necessary, but not sufficient, for an open process. In their work on Open ICT’s for Development, Smith et. al provide a definition that combines ‘artifact’ and ‘process’ elements in understanding how open ICTs may be a matter of access, participation and collaboration. In the case of development though I think it can be sustained that development is a process, and a process that is concerned primarily with increasing human quality of life.

Of course, development in practice involves many processes, and in assessing in any case whether we have open development or not we might have to ask about the relative openness of any number of processes, from priority setting, to planning, to spending, to monitoring and governance.

Open as oppositional

If openness is about ‘access and permission’, then generally it is articulated in opposition to some set of ‘closed’ arrangements. For example, open access is articulated in opposition to the tight intellectual property control and high prices of journal articles that restrict academics access to articles, and their permission to share them. Open movements are hard to isolate and specify separately from those arrangements they oppose (this tends to cloud the artifact/process distinction – as getting a process to open up might well involve some opening of its constituent artifacts).

So, in the case of international development, what is being opposed? It would be easy to generate a long list of things wrong with the way development is done, and to suggest that ‘open development’ is simply the negation of these – but that would overload the concept of open development, and lead to it being seen as a panacea for all that is wrong. Rather, where is there a lack of access, and a lack of permission, in development as it is currently practised? My own initial answer would focus on the fact that those whose human welfare is supposed to be increased by development often have very little stake in the decision making about where resources for development will be used, or in wider policy debates with an influence on their welfare. Access to decision making, and permission to participate, are limited right now – and open development should be about addressing the closed nature of information artifacts, and communication opportunities, that support exclusive processes of governance.

Others may want to focus on different ‘closed’ areas of the current development field, and in doing so, to articulate different visions, or different aspects of the same vision, for open development.

Open X for open development

Counter to the argument above, open development could be said to simply be the application of other open initiatives to the development field. That is – using open data for international development could be said to in itself be ‘open development’. However, I would argue that this is overly reductive, and indeed misses that open technologies or artifacts could potentially be used for non-open development.

‘Open ICT for development’, ‘open source for development’ and ‘open data for development’ are all potentially very good things – but we might also want to ask about whether they need an extra open in there – as in ‘open data for open development’ and so-on.

Open is not enough

As I outlined above, openness removes specific barriers to access, and provides permissions to participate. However, this does not mean effective access to decision making for all. That requires additional attention.

Again, we could load this into the concept of open development, to suggest that openness of process necessarily requires us to ensure all potential participants can overcome barriers outside the process that inhibit their participation. For example, we could say that a community meeting which is formally open to all, is not truly open unless we have been able to pay all the travel costs of everyone who might want to participate and to translate it into all local languages, because without this, there are still barriers to access. However, rather than build these ideas into ‘open development’ I would suggest that we are better to see ‘open’ as amongst a number of desirable prefixes and modifiers for development, such as ‘inclusive’ and ‘egalitarian’.

So what is open development?

When I started writing, I wasn’t sure if I would get down to one clear sentence, or nothing at all. As it is, I think I can offer the following as an interim answer to the question:

  • Open development is a process
  • Open development is about providing access to information, and permission to participate
  • Open development is about challenging closed and distant decision making on development issues
  • Open development is a companion to inclusive development and can provide the foundations for greater inclusion
  • Open development is more than just using open data for development, or taking open source to developing countries
  • Open development is still open to debate

Whether I’ll say the same after next weeks debate we’ll find out – and if you want to suggest your own definition of open development to feed into the discussions, you can do so before 19th September 2012 in this Etherpad.

OGP Take Aways

[Summary: Ten observations and take-aways from #ogp2012]

In an attempt to use reflective blogging to capture thoughts from the Open Government Partnership meeting in Brasilia I’ve jotted down ten key learning points, take-aways, or areas I’ve been musing on. Where critical, I hope they are taken in the spirit of constructive critique.

1) Good ideas come from everywhere
Warren Krafchik made this point in the closing plenary, and it’s one that was apparent throughout OGP. The OGP provides a space for shared learning in all directions: across sectors and across countries. I’ve certainly found my own understanding of open data has been deepened by thinking about how the lessons from Transparent Chennai and Bangalore might apply in the UK context, and I look forward to OGP exchanges providing space for much more sharing of challenges and solutions.

2) The quality of Right to Information really matters
Another bit of shared learning from OGP was previewed in a Guardian article by Arunu Roy writing about the potential strength of the Indian Right to Information (RTI) Act, as against the UK Freedom of Information (FOI) Act. A lot of the civil society participants I spoke with had experience of working with their national RTI laws, or lobbying for them to be created, and the quality, rather than just the presence, of the laws, was a key theme. Some RTI laws require payment to request data; some allow anonymity, others ensure every requester provides their full details. These differences matter, and that presents a challenge for the OGP mechanisms, which at the moment simply require a RTI Bill as a condition of joining.

3) Whistle blower protection is an important factor in the journey from openness to impact
In the closing plenary, Samantha Powell summed this one up: “when you have access to information that challenges conventional wisdom, or when you witness some wrongdoing, you need the protection to come forward with it, and to often that protection is lacking”.

Open data, and access to information might give people working in organisations some of the pieces of the jigsaw they need to spot corruption and wrongdoing. But if they have no protection to highlight that, we may miss many of the opportunities for more open information to bring accountability and impact.

4) We’ve not yet cracked culture change and capacity building
The shift to open government is not just a shift of policy, it also involves culture shift inside government (and to an extent in how civil society interfaces with government). I heard a few mentions of the need for culture change in National Action Plan sessions, but no clear examples of concerted government efforts to address ‘closed cultures’.

5) Ditto effective large scale public engagement
Many countries hadn’t consulted widely on their National Action Plans, and few action plans I heard details of included much substantive on public participation. In part this was explained because of the short lead time that many countries had to produce their action plans: but for me this seems to point to a number of significant challenges we need to work out how to address if open government is to be participative government. Working out more agile models of engagement, that still meet desirable criteria of being inclusive and accessible is a big challenge. For the OGP, it’s also interesting to consider the role of ‘engagement with citizens’ through mass participation, and engagement with CSOs, potentially as mediators of citizen voice. One idea I explored in a few conversations was whether, when OGP Governments support mass-participation in shaping action plans, the raw input should be shared and jointly analysed with CSOs.

6) There is a need to distinguish e-government, from open government
As one of the speakers put it in the closing plenary of day 1: “the open government partnership is not an e-government partnership”. E-government to make public service provision more effective has it’s place, and may overlap with open government, but in itself e-government is not one-and-the-same-as open government.

7) We need both data infrastructures, and accessibility ecosystem, for open data
This is something I’ll write a bit more on soon, but broadly there needs to be a recognition that not only do both government and civil society have a role in providing national infrastructures of open data to support governance, but they also both have a role in stimulating eco-systems that turn that data into information and make it accessible. Some of that comes out a bit in the five stars of open data engagement, though stimulating eco-systems might involve more than just engagement around specific datasets.

8) We need to develop a deeper dialogue between technologists and issue activists
David Eaves has blogged about OGP highlighting a sense of a divide between many of the established civil society groups, and the more emergent technology-skilled open data / open government community. The message that open government is broader than open data can be read in multiple ways. It can be taken as trying to avoid an OGP agenda being used to further ‘open data from government’ as opposed to ‘open data for open government’. It can be taken as a downplaying of the opportunity that technologies bring for opening government. Or it can be taken as calling for technologies to build upon, rather than to try and side-step or leap-over, the hard work and often very contested work that has gone into securing access to information policies and other open government foundations. Some of the best cases I heard about over the OGP were where, having secured a right to information, activists were then able to use technologies and data to more effectively drive accountability.

Finding the common ground, and admitting spaces of difference, between technology and issue-focussed open government communities is another key challenge as OGP develops.

9) Monitoring should ultimately be about change for citizens, not just commitments and process
One of the key tasks for the OGP Steering Committee over the coming months is to develop an Independent Review Mechanism to monitor country action plans. In one of the panel sessions this was described more as an ‘evidence collection’ mechanism, to ensure all voices in a country are heard, rather than an assessment and judgement mechanism – so it holds out real potential to support both third-party evaluation (i.e. non OGP) of country progress against action plans, and to support formative evaluation and learning.

One point which came up a number of times was that OGP should be about change for citizens, not just commitments and process. A IRM that asks the ‘What’s Changed?‘ question of a wide range of citizens, particularly those normally excluded from decision making processes, would be good to see.

10) Deciding on the tenth item for a ten-item list is tricky
Instead you can just link to wisdom from @tkb.

5-Stars of Open Data Engagement?

[Summary: Notes from a workshop at UKGovCamp that led to sketching a framework to encourage engagement and impact of open data initiatives might contain]

Update: The 5 Stars of Open Data Engagement now have their own website at

In short

* Be demand driven

* * Provide context

* * * Support conversation

* * * * Build capacity & skills

* * * * * Collaborate with the community

The Context

I’ve spent the last two days at UKGovCamp, an annual open-space gathering of people from inside and around local and national government passionate about using digital technologies for better engagement, policy making and practice. This years event was split over two days: Friday for conversations and short open-space slots; Saturday for more hands-on discussions and action. Suffice to say, there were plenty of sessions on open data on both days – and this afternoon we tried to take forward some of the ideas from Day 1 about open data engagement in a practical form.

There is a general recognition of the gap between putting a dataset online, and seeing data driving real social change. In a session on Day 1 led by @exmosis, we started to dig into different ways to support everyday engagement with data, leading to Antonio from suggesting that open data initiatives really needed to have some sort of ‘Charter of engagement’ to outline ways they can get beyond simply publishing datasets, and get to supporting people to use data to create social, economic and administrative change. So, we took that as a challenge for day 2, and in session on ‘designing an engaging open data portal’ a small group of us (including Liz StevensonAnthony Zacharzewski, Jon Foster and Jag Goraya) started to sketch what a charter might look like.

You can see the (still developing) charter draft in this Google Doc. However, it was Jag Goraya‘s suggestion that the elements of a charter we were exploring might also be distilled into a ‘5 Stars’ that seemed to really make some sense of the challenge of articulating what it means to go beyond publishing datasets to do open data engagement. Of course, 5-star rating scales have their limitations, but I thought it worth sharing the draft that was emerging.

What is Open Data Engagement?

We were thinking about open data engagement as the sorts of things an open data initiative should be doing beyond just publishing datasets. The engagement stars don’t relate to the technical openness or quality of the datasets (there are other scales for that), and are designed to be flexible to be able to apply to a particular dataset, a thematic set of datasets, or an open data initiative as a whole.

We were also thinking about open government data in our workshop; though hopefully the draft has wider applicability. The ‘overarching principles’ drafted for the Charter might also help put the stars in context:

Key principles of open government data: “Government information and data are common resources, managed in trust by government. They provide a platform for public service provision, democratic engagement and accountability, and economic development and innovation. A commitment to open data involves making information and data resources accessible to all without discrimination; and actively engaging to ensure that information and data can be used in a wide range of ways.”

Draft sketch of five stars of Open Data Engagement

The names and explanatory text of these still need a lot of work; you can suggest edits as comments in the Google Doc where they were drafted.

* Be demand driven

Are your choices about the data you release, how it is structured, and the tools and support provided around it based on community needs and demands? Have you got ways of listening to people’s requests for data, and responding with open data?

** Provide good meta-data; and put data in context

Do your data catalogue provide clear meta-data on datasets, including structured information about frequency of updates, data formats and data quality? Do you include qualitative information alongside datasets such as details of how the data was created, or manuals for working with the data? Do you link from data catalogue pages to analysis your organisation, or third-parties, have already carried out with the data, or to third-party tools for working with the data?

Often organisations already have detailed documentation of datasets (e.g. analysis manuals and How To’s) which could be shared openly with minimal edits. It needs to be easy to find these when you find a dataset. It’s also common that governments have published analysis of the datasets (they collected it for a reason), or used it in some product or service, and so linking to these from the dataset (and vice-versa) can help people to engage with it.

*** Support conversation around the data

Can people comment on datasets, or create a structured conversation around data to network with other data users? Do you join the conversations? Are there easy ways to contact the individual ‘data owner’ in your organisation to ask them questions about the data, or to get them to join the conversation? Are there offline opportunities to have conversations that involve your data?

**** Build capacity, skills and networks

Do you provide or link to tools for people to work with your datasets? Do you provide or link to How To guidance on using open data analysis tools, so people can build their capacity and skills to interpret and use data in the ways they want to? Are these links contextual (e.g. pointing people to GeoData tools for a geo dataset, and to statistical tools for a performance monitoring dataset)? Do you go out into the community to run skill-building sessions on using data in particular ways, or using particular datasets? Do you sponsor or engage with community capacity building?

When you give people tools – you help them do one thing. When you give people skills, you open the possibility of them doing many things in future. Skills and networks are more empowering than tools. 

***** Collaborate on data as a common resource

Do you have feedback loops so people can help you improve your datasets? Do you collaborate with the community to create new data resources (e.g. derived datasets)? Do you broker or provide support to people to build and sustain useful tools and services that work with your data?

It’s important for all the stars that they can be read not just with engaging developers and techies in mind, but also community groups, local councillors, individual non-techie citizens etc. Providing support for collaboration can range from setting up source-code sharing space on GitHub, to hanging out in a community centre with print-outs and post-it notes. Different datasets, and different initiatives will have different audiences and so approaches to the stars – but hopefully there is a rough structure showing how these build to deeper levels of engagement.

Where next?

Hopefully Open Data Sheffield will spend some time looking at this framework at a future meeting – and all comments are welcome on the Google doc. Clearly there’s lot to be done to make these more snappy, focussed and neat – but if we do find there’s a fairly settled sense of a five stars of engagement framework (if not yet good language to express it) then it would be interesting to think about whether we have the platforms and processes in place anywhere to support all of this: finding the good practice to share. Of course, there might already be a good engagement framework out there we missed when sketching this all out – so comments to that effect welcome too…



Ammended 22nd January to properly credit Antonio of as originator of the Charter idea

Exploring Open Charity Data with Nominet Trust

[Summary: notes from a pilot one-day working on open data opportunities in third-sector organisations]

On Friday I spent the day with Nominet Trust for the second of a series of charity ‘Open Data Days’ exploring how charities can engage with the rapidly growing and evolving world of open data. The goal of these hands-on workshops is to spend just one working day looking at what open data might have to offer to a particular organisation and, via some hands-on prototyping and skill-sharing, to develop an idea of the opportunities and challenges that the charity needs to explore to engage more with open data.

The results of ten open data days will be presented at a Nominet Trust, NCVO and Big Lottery Fund conference later in the year, but for now, here’s a quick run-down / brain-dump of some of the things explored with the Nominet Trust team.

What is Open Data anyway?

Open data means many different things to different people – so it made sense to start the day looking at different ways of understanding open data, and identifying the ideas of open data that chimed most with Ed and Kieron from the Nominet Trust Team.

The presentation below runs through five different perspectives on open data, from understanding open data as a set of policies and practices, to looking at how open data can be seen as a political movement or a movement to build foundations of collaboration on the web.

Reflecting on the slides with Ed and Kieron highlighted that the best route into exploring open data for Nominet Trust was looking at the idea that ‘open data is what open data does’ which helped us to set the focus for the day on exploring practical ways to use open data in a few different contexts. However, a lot of the uses of open data we went on to explore also chime in with the idea of a technical and cultural change that allows people to perform their own analysis, rather than just taking presentations of statistics and data at face value.

Mapping opportunities for open data

Even in a small charity there are many different places open data could have an impact. With Nominet Trust we looked at a number of areas where data is in use already:

  • Informing calls for proposals – Nominet Trust invite grant applications for ideas that use technology for disruptive innovation in a number of thematic areas, with two main thematic areas of focus live at any one time. New thematic areas of focus are informed by ‘State of the Art’ review reports. Looking at one of these it quickly becomes clear these are data-packed resources, but that the data, analysis and presentation are all smushed together.
  • Throughout the grant process – Nominet Trust are working not only to fund innovative projects, but also to broker connections between projects and to help knowledge and learning flow between funded projects. Grant applications are made online, and right now, details of successful applicants are published on the Trust’s websites. A database of grant investment is used to keep track of ongoing projects.
  • Evaluation – the Trust are currently looking at new approaches to evaluating projects, and identifying ways to make sure evaluation contributes not only to an organisations own reflections on a project, but also to wider learning about effective responses to key social issues.

With these three areas of data focus, we turned to identify three data wishes to guide the rest of the open data day. These were:

  • Being able to find the data we need when we need it
  • Creating actionable tools that can be embedded in different parts of the grant process – and doing this with open platforms that allow the Nominet Trust team to tweak and adapt these tools.
  • Improving evaluation – with better data in, and better day out

Pilots, prototypes and playing with data

The next part of our Open Data Day was to roll up our sleeves and to try some rapid experiments with a wide range of different open data tools and platforms. Here are some the experiments we tried:

Searching for data

We imagined a grant application looking at ways to provide support to young people not in education, employment or training in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and set the challenge of finding data that could support the application, or that could support evaluation of it. Using the Open Data Cook Book guide to sourcing data, Ed and Keiron set off to track down relevant datasets, eventually arriving at a series of spreadsheets on education stats in London on the London Skills and Employment Observatory website via the London Datastore portal.  Digging into the spreadsheets allowed the team to put claims that could be made about levels of education and employment exclusion in RBKC in context, looking at the difference interpretations that might be drawn from claims made about trends and percentages, and claims about absolute numbers of young people affected.

Learning: The data is out there; and having access to the raw data makes it possible to fact-check claims that might be made in grant applications. But, the data still needs a lot of interpretation, and much of the ‘open data’ is hidden away in spreadsheets.

Publishing open data

Most websites are essentially databases of content with a template to present them to human readers. However, it’s often possible to make the ‘raw data’ underlying the website available as more structured, standardised open data. The Nominet Trust website runs on Drupal and includes a content type for projects awarded funding which includes details of the project, it’s website address, and the funding awarded.

Using a demonstration Drupal website we explored how the Drupal Views and the Views Bonus Pack open source modules it was easy to create a ‘CSV’ open data download of information in the website.

The sorts of ‘projects funded’ open data this would make available from Nominet Trust might be of interest to sites like which are aggregating details of funding to many different organisations.

Learning: You can become an open data publisher very easily, and by hooking into existing places where ‘datasets’ are kept, keeping your open data up-to-date is simple.

Mashing-up datasets

Because open datasets are often provided in standardised forms, and the licenses under which data is published allow flexible re-use of the data, it becomes easy to mash-up different datasets, generating new insights by combining different sources.

We explored a number of mash-up tools. Firstly, we looked at using Google Spreadsheets and Yahoo Pipes to filter a dataset ready to combine it with other data. The Open Data Cook Book has a recipe that involves scraping data with Google Spreadsheets, and a Yahoo Pipes recipe on combing datasets.

Then we turned to the open data powertool that is Google Refine. Whilst Refine runs in a web browser, it is software you install on your own computer, and it keeps the data on your machine until you publish it – making a good tool for a charity to use to experiment with their own data, before deciding whether it will be published as open data or not.

We started by using Google Refine to explore data from – taking a list of all the charities with the word ‘Internet’ in their description that had been exported from the site, and using the ‘Facets’ feature (and a Word Facet) in Google Refine to look at the other terms they used in their descriptions. Then we turned to a simple dataset of organisations funded by Nominet Trust, and explored how by using API access to’s spending dataset we could get Google Refine to fetch details of which Nominet Trust funded organisations had also recieved money from particular local authorities or big funders like Big Lottery Fund and the Arts Council. This got a bit technical, so a step-by-step How To will have to wait – but the result was an interesting indication of some of the organisations that might turn out to be common co-funders of projects with Nominet Trust – a discovery enabled by those funders making their funding information available as open data.

Learning: Mash-ups can generate new insights – although many mash-ups still involve a bit of technical heavy-lifting and it can take some time to really explore all the possibilities.

Open data for evaluation

Open data can be both an input and an output of evaluation. We looked at a simple approach using Google Spreadsheets to help a funder create evaluation online evaluation tools for funded projects.

With a Google Docs account, we looked at creating a new ‘Form’. Google Forms are easy to create, and let you design a set of simple survey elements that a project can fill in online, with the results going directly into an online Google Spreadsheet. In the resulting spreadsheet, we added an extra tab for ‘Baseline Data’, and exploring how the =ImportData() formula in Google Spreadsheet can be used to pull in CSV files of open data from a third party, keeping a sheet of baseline data up-to-date. Finally, we looked at the ‘Publish as a Web Page’ feature of Google Spreadsheets which makes it possible to provide a simple CSV file output from a particular sheet.

In this way, we saw that a funder could create an evaluation form template for projects in a Google Form/Spreadsheet, and with shared access to this spreadsheet, could help funded projects to structure their evaluations in ways that helped cross-project comparison. By using formulae to move a particular sub-set of the data to a new sheet in the Spreadsheet, and then using the ‘Publish as a Web Page’ feature, non-private information could be directly published as open data from here.

Learning: Open data can be both an input to, and an output from, evaluation.

Embeddable tools and widgets

Working with open data allows you to present one interpretation or analysis of some data, but also allow users of your website or resources to dig more deeply into the data and find their own angles, interpretations, or specific facts.

When you add a ‘Gadget’ chart to a Google Spreadsheet of data you can often turn it into a widget to embed in a third party website. Using some of the interactive gadgets allows you to make data available in more engaging ways.

Platforms like IBM’s Many Eyes also let you create interactive graphs that users can explore.

Sometimes, interactive widgets might already be available, as in the case of Interactive Population pyramids from ONS. The Nominet Trust state of the art review on Aging and use of the Internet includes a static image of a population pyramid, but many readers could find the interactive version more useful.

Learning: If you have data in a report, or on a web page, you can make it interactive by publishing it as open data, and then using embeddable widgets.

Looking ahead

The Open Data Day ended with a look at some of the different ways to take forward learning from our pilots and prototypes. The possibilities included:


  • Quick wins: Making funded project data available as structured open data. As this information is already published online, there are not privacy issues with making it available in a more structured format.
  • Developing small prototypes taking the very rough proof-of-concept ideas from the Open Data Day on a stage, and using this to inform plans for future developments. Some of the prototypes might be interactive widgets.
  • A ‘fact check’ experiment: taking a couple of past grant applications, and using open data resources to fact-check the claims made in those applications. Reflecting on whether this process offers useful insights and how it might form part of future processes.
  • Commissioning open data along with research: when Nominet Trust commissions future State of the Art reviews it could include a request for the researcher to prepare a list of relevant open datasets as well, or to publish data for the report as open data.


  • Explore open data standards such as the International Aid Transparency Initiative Standard for publishing project data in a more detailed form.
  • Building our own widgets and tools: for example, tools to help applicants find relevant open data to support their application, or tools to give trustees detailed information on applicant organisations to help their decision making.
  • Building generalisable tools and contributing to the growth of a common resource of software and tools for working with open data, as well as just building things for direct organisational use.

Where next?

This was just the second of a series of Open Data Days supported by Nominet Trust. I’m facilitating one more next month, and there are a team of other consultants working with varied other charities over the coming weeks. So far I’ve been getting a sense of the wide range of possible areas open data can fit into charity work (it feels quite like exploring the ways social media could work for charities did back in 2007/8…), but there’s also much work to be done identifying some of the challenges that charities might face, and sustainable ways to overcome them. Lots more to learn….

Reclaiming reflective space

[Summary: Reflecting on reflecting.]

I’ve been blogging far less that I’d like to here over recent months. I’ve been thinking about why that is:

Firstly, the focus of my interests and work since I started writing here regularly have been on quite a journey. I started out with a focus writing on participation and youth engagement; I’ve written a lot on digital media and youth engagement; on fair trade and social issue campaigning; on social reporting and digital dimensions of local democracy; and over the last 18-months on open government data. Right now I’m spending most of my working time exploring open data and linked data in the world of international development, although I’m still involved in projects on all the other themes above. For me, there are connections between all these different issues – reasons I’m spending time exploring them – yet, to most people, I’m sure they don’t really make up a coherent set. So I’ve been self-editing before starting to write posts – worrying that they won’t be of relevance to people still signed up to get e-mail alerts whenever I post anything here.

Secondly, things have been busy. Really busy. Time spent writing reflective blog posts can feel like a luxury. It used to be something I could see as part of a mornings work, but a lot of the project I’ve been working on recently have been based on a set number of days, rather than on tasks, which changes the decision about spending an hour in the morning or afternoon on reflective writing.

Thirdly, I have been writing, just elsewhere and project-specific. I’ve been blogging for the Making a Difference with Data Blog, and on my Open Data Impacts blog. I’ve been trying to contribute to the Youth Work Online shared blog regularly, and I’ve been working on a number of papers that may become blog posts at some point in the future. But for some reason I’ve not been blogging here.

Fourth, I’ve been tweeting. Twitter provides a great space to capture and share insights and ideas day-to-day – and I’ve certainly been benefiting from the ideas, links and resources others share. But it does lack the sort of reflective canvas that blogging can provide, and tweets exist in a stream of context – whereas a blog post can capture and archive more complete thoughts, albeit often provisional ones.

Fifth, I’m aware that when I post something here, Feedburner kicks in and e-mails it to around 100 people who subscribe to this blog by e-mail, and a number of other people get alerts about posts via Twitter or through RSS readers. That can make posting something a little daunting, both for reflective posts like this and for quick announcements of things – as it’s never my intention to clog up your inboxes (particularly as I know my posts get a bit verbose and ponderous on times…).

Sixth, I’ve been frustrated with the design of this blog. I’ve tried a number of routes to a better design – but not found anything that works for me. I’ve been a bit ashamed of how the blog itself looks.

Ok. I think I understand a bit more of why I’ve not been blogging here so much. I’m hoping that taking the time to write down those reasons, and reflecting on them, will help me to reclaim blogging as essential reflective practice.

Rather than having too much on to find time to blog, there’s too much going on not to. In the past I’ve found blogging to be an essential part of making sense of what I’m working on – and I’m in need of that sense-making on a few projects right now. Rather than worrying that the different topics I’m exploring make for a disjointed feed of posts, personal blogging provides a space to reflect on those different threads, to explore them as distinct interests, and to explore where they come together. For all the things that don’t fit into any of the other spaces I’m writing in, or that I want to archive as part of my thinking, this blog can provide a space to put things. Readers always have the option to unsubscribe. The design: well, I’ll just have to put up with it.


  • I’m going to try and return to keeping this blog as a space for reflective practice. There will still be announcements of things, and content that I want to share somewhere, but I make no promises as to the relevance of things posted here to topics that have gone before.
  • If you subscribe by RSS or e-mail, I won’t be offended if you don’t want to anymore. I know there are a lot of people interested in participation and youth-work on the e-mail subscribers list who might find reflections on the intricacies of linked data somewhat outside their area of interest, and vice-versa.
  • I’d off to spend some time reflective writing on topics other than reflection…

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.
  • 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.