Localgovcamp – what not to do

Fresh from LocalGovCamp on Saturday 18th June 2011 in Birmingham, I’m writing a much more measured blog post than the one I wrote after my first ever unconference.

As expected, I had a really great day (and night before) and managed to catch up with a few familiar faces and made a few new friends. But it didn’t quite do the same for me as UKGovCamp in January, because I got things a little bit wrong. I decided that as I got such a buzz from attending interesting (and not necessarily work-related) sessions last time, I would focus more on what I could get out of the day for me to apply in my job. So my session choices were based around that. I also tried to speak to everyone I possibly could, which left me with spending about 2 minutes with each person. I left feeling kind of rude for not having chats any deeper than “Hi, lovely to see you, how’s your day going? Are you enjoying it? How’s work? Lovely, well we’ll catch up on Twitter then…” Missing. The. Point.

The first session, run by Ingrid Koehler and Liz Azyan around creating “Really Useful” stuff with open data did hit the spot perfectly. As I’m hoping to run a Transport Hack event for the West Midlands I got some fantastic advice from Stuart Harrison, Philip John, Martin Wright and others. Particularly useful tips were using public and private API keys so we can still charge companies for data if we need to (from Philip John) and the troubles that can happen when developers aren’t comfortable coding outside of their preferred language (from Martin Wright). It also made me realise that it doesn’t matter that I’m not a developer, actually the role of facilitator to keep things running smoothly is vital. If only the rest of the day had gone so well….

Session 2 was my opportunity to give something back to the day – helping Nick Booth and others deliver a session on Social Media Surgeries. I do like to share (talk a lot), and I didn’t really get to contribute as much to the session as I’d hoped (thanks Nick ;P) but I did leave feeling that it had been really valuable for the people in the session. Let’s hope some more surgeries pop up as a result of the good work Nick has done.

Over lunch I spent some time with Nicky Getgood on her Social Media Safari, and this was a really great idea. Getting people to really look at what is going on in their local area and encouraging local gov people to start interacting. I did a little audioboo with some of my thoughts and had my photo taken in a lion mask, obviously!

Me on my Social Media Safari

Me on my Social Media Safari

Session 3 was Emergencies with Ben Procter. As delivering IT for our emergency planning unit comes under my team, I felt this would be useful. But, and this is my fault, I didn’t really get that much out of it because I don’t think I knew what I was hoping to hear. I felt I couldn’t really contribute, and so left about half way through. Ideally, I would have liked to have understood a bit more about different types of emergencies, what can help during, immediately after and longer term. They may have covered this after I left, in which case, doh! Sorry Ben, this wasn’t your fault!

I think session 4 was something with MySociety, but I couldn’t really get into that session (and arrived a bit late), so I left and had a quick catch up with a few people over coffee.

The final session helped bring the day back up again, that was Stuart Harrison and Philip John talking about their vision to turn Lichfield into a City of Data. They want to prove the concept of linked data and the power of what can be done if we go to the effort of doing it. I raised my concerns over linked data transferring the effort from developer community to local government (tricky when it’s hard enough to just get open data out), but I do think what they are planning is a good idea. Sadly, I think some of the group got a bit hung up on the idea that they were trying to change the processes within the authority and spent quite a bit of time talking about that – i.e. what happens when someone reports a bench has been broken. I hope they didn’t leave feeling disappointed, and I look forward to seeing what happens there.

So to sum up, I chose to do work stuff because I wanted to come away with the enthusiasm and ideas to get stuff done. I have come away with a little bit of both, but my expectations were set very high from UKGovCamp. Maybe if I had spent the day going to talks that I found more interesting, I would have left feeling more enthusiastic, but without any clear focus as to what I could achieve as a result of it.

There were quite a few topics I had spent time involved in at UKGovCamp, so there was a little bit of repetition there. That’s great for the new people, but not quite so great for the regulars. One of the downsides of the unconference style of doing things – you don’t know what you’re going to get until you get there. As far as running a session goes, I find the ones I enjoyed most were the ones that had a brief intro and then getting straight down to business with a discussion. The ones where you listen to the host talk for half an hour don’t quite do it for me I’m afraid.

I also have to agree with Simon Gray in his post that it can feel a little bit self-congratulatory. There, I’ve said it, and as Simon says, a little less of the excellent-ness. The whole #ff thing on Twitter makes me feel the same way.

And a positive end – I thought Sammy, Si and Dave did a great job, thanks for all your efforts. I will be interested to see the results from the “What I have got from unconferences before” and “What am I going to do as a result”. Mine was something along the lines of:

“They help me realise everyone is going through the same sh*t, so there’s no point looking elsewhere for a job. Stay where you are and do something good”.

And what I am actually going to do, rather than just talk about?

  1. Running a transport hack event for the West Midlands
  2. Organising the next Brewcamp
  3. Organising the venue for the next hyperlocalwm

Thoughts on SmartGovLive

*Warning – sweeping statement coming up* Central Government projects are a bit like TV soap operas – a lot of people talk about them, there is an awful lot of drama, they are sometimes painful to watch, the same characters keep moving around but they’re not actually real.

I’m back in the office after an interesting couple of days at the Guardian hosted SmartGovLive conference. Sadly, it was an event where the exhibitors and vendors outnumbered the government people by about 10 to 1, but the content of the seminars and talks were still interesting.

Across the two days it felt a little bit like a pantomime. I heard a talk about the Public Sector Network and when it’s going to be delivered (oh no it isn’t). I then went on to another talk about the progress of the G-Cloud and when that will be delivered (oh no it won’t). So I’m still left a little bit up in the air as to what the future is around these projects, probably best not to carry on holding my breath.

The pantomime continued into day two when David Wilde did a talk around channel shift. He used a great phrase “ICT can’t drive it, the business can’t transform without it, so we need partnership”. But from what I’ve seen of partnerships, no matter how hard you try and sell it, there is always someone at the top.

He spoke passionately about his belief that government should stop concentrating on building websites and should develop apps as that’s how people are doing things now. He sees the Internet moving back to where it was in the late 90’s – just a repository of information, and the transactional stuff will be done using apps. I posed this question to the lunchtime panel (Dave BriggsChris Chant, Dominic Campbell, Paul Watson and Andy Gibson) who were discussing how Information Technology is changing the UK, and they are less sure on the subject. The general feeling seems to be that we can’t focus on one element of technology, we need to ensure government has the skills to use whatever is relevant to our citizens and how to deliver our services in the best way possible.

My day wouldn’t be complete without listening to something on open data, transparency and all of that good stuff. Paul Davidson managed to compress a 45 minute presentation on Linked Data into about 15 minutes. Simon Rogers spoke about the great work being done by the Guardian Datastore. But we’re still left in the situation that really great stuff is being done in very small pockets – government are starting to release more and more data, but there isn’t enough incentive for the developers out there to do anything with it. Linked data is clearly the way the world should be going, but currently the effort involved in getting an Excel spreadsheet out of a team makes getting data in a linkable format out almost impossible.

A thought-provoking day in which I think I’ve come away with more questions than answers.