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.

NT Open Data Days: Exploring data flow in a VCO

[Summary: A practical post of notes from a charity open data day. Part reflective learning; part brain-dump; part notes for ECDP]

Chelmsford was my destination this morning for a Nominet Trust funded ‘Open Data Day’ with the Essex Coalition of Disabled People (ECDP). The Open Data Days are part of an action research exploration of how charities might engage with the growing world of open data, both as data users and publishers. You can find a bit more of the context in this post on my last Open Data Day with the Nominet Trust team.

This (rather long and detailed) post provides a run down of what we explored on the day as a record for the ECDP team, and as as resource of wider shared learning.

Seeking structures and managing data

For most small organisations, data management often means Excel spreadsheets, and ECDP is no exception. In fact, ECDP has a lot of spreadsheets on the go. Different teams across the organisation maintain lists of volunteers, records about service users, performance data, employment statistics, and a whole lot more, in individual Excel workbooks. Bringing that data together to publish the ‘Performance Dashboards‘ that ECDP built for internal management, but that have also been shared in the open data are of the ECDPwebsite, is a largely manual task. Across these spreadsheets it’s not uncommon to see the information on a particular topic (e.g. volunteers), spread across different tabs, or duplicated into different spreadsheets where staff have manually copied filtered extracts for particular reports. The challenge with this is that it leads the organisations information to fragment, and makes pulling together both internal and open data and analysis tricky. Many of the spreadsheets we found during the open day mix the ‘data layer’, with ‘presentation’ and ‘analysis’ layers, rather than separating these out.

What can be done?

Before getting started with open data, we realised that we needed to look at the flow of data inside the organisation. So, we looked at what makes a good data layer in a spreadsheet, such as:

  • Keeping all the data of one type in a single worksheet. For example, if you have data on volunteers all the data should be in a single sheet. Don’t start new sheets for ‘Former volunteers’, or ‘Volunteers interested in sports’ – as this fragments the data. If you need to be know about a volunteers interest, or whether they are active or not, add a column to your main sheet, and use filters (see below).
  • Having one header row of columns. You can use merged cells, sub-headings and other formatting when you present data – but when you use these in the master spreadsheet where you collect and store your data you make life trickier for the computer to understand what your data is, and to support different analysis of the data in future.
  • Including validation… Excel allows you to define a list of possible values for a cell, and provides users entering data with a drop-down box to select from instead of them typing values in by hand. This really helps increase the consistency of data. You can also validate to be sure the entry in a cell is a number, or a date, and so-on. In working on some ECDP prototypes we ran up against a problem where our lists of possible valid entries for a cell was too long, and we didn’t want to keep the master-list of valid values in the Excel sheet our data was on, but Wizard of Excel has documented a workaround for that.
  • …but keeping some flexiblity. Really strict validation has it’s own problems, as it can force people to twist what they wanted to record to fit in a structure that doesn’t make sense, or that distorts the data. For example, in some spreadsheets we found the ‘Staff member responsible’ column often had more than one name in. We had to explore why that was, and whether the data structure needed to accomodate more than one staff member linked to a particular row in the spreadsheet. Keeping a spreadsheet structure flexible can be a matter of providing free text areas where users are not constrained in the detail they provide and in having a flexible process to revise and update structures according to demand.

Once you have a well structured spreadsheet (see the open data cookbook section on preparing your data if you still need to get a sense of what well structured data might look like), then you can do a lot more with it. For example:

  • Creating a pivot chart. Pivot chartsare a great way to analyse data, and are well worth spending time to explore. Many of the reporting requirements an organisation has can be met using a pivot chart.For ECDP we created an example well-structured dataset of ‘Lived Experience Feedback’ – views and insights provided by service users and recorded with detailed descriptions, dates when the feedback was given, and categories highlighting the topical focus of the views expressed. We made all this data into an Excel list, which allowed us to add a formula that would apply to every row and that used the =MONTH() formula to extract the month from the dates given in each row. Creating a pivot chart from this list, we could then drill down to find figures such as the number of Lived Experience reports provided to the Insight team and relating to ‘Employment’ in any given month.
  • Creating filtered lists and dashboards. It can seem counterintuitive to an organisation which mostly wants to see data in separate lists by area, or organisational team, to put all the data for those areas and teams into one spreadsheet, with just a column to flag up which team or area a row relates to. That’s why spreadsheets often end up with different tabs for different teams – where the same sort of data is spread across them. Using formulae to create thematic lists and dashboards can be a good way to keep teams happy, whilst getting them to contribute to a single master list of data. (We spent quite a lot of time on the open data day thinking about the importance of motivating staff to provide good quality data, and the need to make the consequences of providing good data visible.)Whilst the ‘Autofilter’ feater in Excel can be used to quickly sub-set a dataset to get just the information you are interested in, when we’re building a spreadsheet to be stored on a shared drive, and used by multiple teams, we want to avoid confusion when the main data sheet ends up with filters applied. So instead we used simple cross-sheet formulae (e.g. If your main data sheet is called ‘Data’, then put =’Data’!A1 in the top-left cell of a new sheet, and then drag it out) to copies of the master sheet, and then applied to the filters to these. We included a big note on each of these extra sheets to remind people that any edits should be made to the master data, not these lists.
  • Linking across spreadsheets. Excel formulae can be used to point to values not just in other sheets, but also to values in other files. This makes it possible to build a dashboard that automatically updates by running queries against other sheets on a shared drive.Things get even more powerful when you are able to publish datasets to the web as open data, when tools like Google Docs have the ability to pull in values and data across the web, but even with non-open data in an organisation, there should be no need to copy and paste values that could be transfered dynamically and automatically.

Of course, when you’ve got lots of legacy spreadsheets around, then making the shift to more structured data, separating the data, analysis and presentation layers, can be tricky. Fortunately, some of the common tools in the open data wranglers toolbox come in handy here.

To move from a spreadsheet with similar data spread across lots of different tabs (one for each team that produced that sort of data), to one with consistent and standardised data, we copied all the data into a single sheet with one header row, and a new column indicating the ‘team’ that row was from (we did this by saving each of the sheets as .csv files, and using the ‘cat’ command on Mac OSX to combine these together, but the same effect can be got with copy and paste).

We then turned to the open data wranglers power tool Google Refine (available as a free download) to clean up the data. We used ‘text facets’ to see where people had entered slightly different names for the same area or theme, and made bulk edits to these, and used some replacement patterns to tidy up date values.

We then took this data back into Excel to build a master spreadsheet, with one single ‘Data’ sheet, and separate sheets for pivot chart reports and filtered lists.

The whole process once started took an hour or so, but once complete, we had a dataset that could be analysed in many more ways than before, and we had the foundations for building both better internal data flows, and for extracting open data to share.

Heading towards a CRM

As much as, with the appropriate planning, discipline and stewardship, Excel can be used to manage a lot of the data an organisation needs, we also explored the potential to use a fully-featured ‘Contact Relationship Management‘ dataset (CRM) to record information right across the organisation.

Even when teams and projects in an organisation are using well structured spreadsheets, there are likely to be overlaps and links between their datasets that are hard to make unless they are all brought into one place. For example, two teams might be talking to the same person, but if one knows the person as Mr Rich Watts, and the other record R.Watts, bringing together this information is tricky. A CRM is a central database (often now accessed over the web) which keeps all this information in one place.

Modern CRM systems can be set up to track all sorts of interactions with volunteers, customers or service users, both to support day to day operations, and to generate management information. We looked at the range of CRM tools available, from the Open Source ‘CiviCRM’ which has case tracking modules that may be useful to an organisation like ECDP, through to tools like Salesforce, which offer discounts to non-profits. Most CRM solutions have free online trials. LASA’s ICT Knowledge Base is a great place to look for more support on exploring options for CRM systems.

In our open data day we discussed the importance of thinking about the ‘user journey’ that any database needs to support, and ensuring the databases enable, rather than constrain, staff. Any process of implementing a new database is likely to involve some changes in staff working practices too, so it’s important to look at the training and culture change components as well as the technical elements. This is something true of both internal data, and open data, projects.

When choosing CRM tools it’s important to think about how a system might make it possible to publish selected information as open data directly in future, and how they might be able to pull in open data.

Privacy Matters

Open data should not involve the release of people’s personal data. To make open data work, a clear line needs to be drawn between data that identifies and is about individuals, and the sorts of non-personal data that an organisation can release as open data.

Taking privacy seriously matters:

  • Data anonymisation cannot be relied upon. Studies conclusively show that we should not put our faith in anonymisation to protect individuals identity in published datasets. It’s not enough to simply remove names or dates of birth from a dataset before publishing it.
  • Any release of data drawn from personal data needs to follow from a clear risk assessment. It’s important to consider what harm could result from the release of any dataset. For example, if publishing a dataset that has contains information on reported hate crime by post-code area, if a report was traced back to an individual could this lead to negative consequences for them?
  • It’s important to be aware of jigsaw re-identification risks. Jigsaw re-identification is the risk that putting together two open datasets will allow someone to unlock previously anonymised personal data. For example, if you publish one open dataset that maps where users of your service are, and includes data on types of disability, and you publish another dataset that lists reports of hate-crime by local area, could these be combined to discover the disability of the person who reported hate crime in a particular area, and then, perhaps combined with some information from a social network like Facebook or Twitter, to identify that person.

Privacy concerns don’t mean that it’s impossible to produce open data from internal datasets of pesonal information, but care has to be taken. There can be tension between the utility of open data, and the privacy of personal data in a dataset. Organisations need to be careful to ensure privacy concerns and the rights of service users always come first.

With the ECDP data on ‘Lived Experience’ we looked at how Google Refine could be used to extract from the data a list of ‘PCT Areas’ and ‘Issue Topics’ reported by service users, to map where the hot-spots were for particular issues at the PCT level. Whilst drawn from a dataset with personal information, this dataset would not include any Personally Identifying Information, and may be possible to publish as open data.

Open data fusion

Whilst a lot of our ‘open data day’ was spent on the foundations for open data work, rather than open data itself, we did work on one small project which had an immediate open data element.

Rich Watts brought to the session a spreadsheet of 250 Disabled People’s User Led Organisations (DPULOs), and wanted to find out (a) how many of these organisations were charities; and (b) what their turnover was. Fortunately, Open Charities has gathered exactly the data needed to answer that question as open data, and so we ran through how Google Fusion Tables could be used to merge Rich’s spreadsheet with existing charity data (see this How To for an almost identical project with Esmee Fairbairn grants data), generating the dataset needed to answer these questions in just under 10 minutes.

We discussed how Rich might want to publish his spreadsheet of DPULOs as open data in future, or to contribute information on the fact that certain charities are Disabled People’s User Led Organisations back to an open data source like Open Charities.

Research Resources

The other element to our data was an exploration of online data sources useful in researching a local area, led fantastically by Matthew of PolicyWorks.

Many of the data sources Matthew was able to point to for finding labour market information, health statistics, demographic information and other stats provide online access to datasets, but don’t offer this as ‘open data’ that would meet the OKF’s open definition requirements, raising some interesting questions about the balance between a purist approach to open data, or an approach that looks for data which is ‘open enough’ for rough-and-ready research.

Where next?

Next week Nominet, NCVO and Big Lottery Fund are hosting a conference to bring together learning from all the different Open Data Days that have been taking place. The day will also see the release of a report on the potential of open data in the charity sector.

For me, today’s open data day has shown that we need to recognise some of the core data skills that organisations will need to benefit from open data. Not just skills to use new online tools, but skills to manage the flow of data internally, and to fascilitate good data management. Investment in these foundations might turn out to be pivotal for realising open data’s third-sector potential…