And now I’m back

So I’ve been out of the loop for quite a few months now. My last post was 12 months ago (shame on me). I wish I could say I’ve been working on a top secret project that I wasn’t able to talk about, or been on a sabbatical exploring the meaning of life. But I haven’t, and I wasn’t.  Now I’m back in my natural habitat (Local Government ICT Projects) and it’s like I never left (in a good way).

Last week (28th June 2012) I made it to Brewcamp in Walsall, and it was a jam-packed evening of fascinating stuff that has really helped me dust off my thinking cap. Not only did I manage a good scheme with Si Whitehouse (watch this space for an interesting, schools related open data project coming to a govcamp near you!), I also came up with a good wheeze for our Country Parks courtesy of Mike Rawlins and his augmented reality (depending on 3g signals, ensuring our country parks teams are geo-tagging their posts and photos on their blog/facebook page).

So a quick run down (if I had written this post sooner I would have forgotten less):

Steph Jennings gave a fantastic talk around the use of social media during the Christchurch earthquakes in 2010/2011 and the impact it had, both on the local community and Steph, as a relative of someone right in the middle of it. The social media side of it was great, but what I will remember most is learning about liquefaction!

The next talk was around Who Cares Walsall and how Walsall Council are putting the Social into Social Care. This was a fascinating insight into how the comms team managed the sensitivities around talking about social care issues through their blog and Twitter. It was nice to hear how well supported and trusted they are by the director of the People Group to enable them to carry out this great work. Some good lessons to be learned there by other authorities.

Finally, and disappointingly in person (we had been promised an augmented reality version), Mike Rawlins talked to us about the work being done by Talk About Local around geo-tagging content to create an augmented reality view of places, initially Stoke-on-Trent. This set the cogs going for me as we are using WordPress a lot across my authority, so there is some potential to explore this further with their plug-in.

All in all, a great evening with lots of learning, sharing, plotting and eating curry. Having missed out on the UKGovCamp at the beginning of the year and a couple of Brewcamps after that, a shot of localgov goodwill in the arm was just what I needed.

What I didn’t need was being twaped by Andy Mabbett while I was off buying him a cup of coffee…


Brewcamp Coventry

“That was the best 2 hours of creative thinking and discussion I’ve had for a long time” Jan Britton, Chief Exec of Sandwell Council.

Having accepted the Brewcamp baton, last night saw the gathering of about 20 local government types in Coventry for an evening of QR codes, bus timetables, museums, open transport data, filming/tweeting council meetings, eBooks and, most importantly, cake.


About 8 hours before the event I got the exciting news that we’d bagged ourselves a Chief Exec for the evening, so the pressure was on to deliver. Deep down, I knew there was no need to worry. Everyone I meet at these kinds of events make them so enjoyable and interesting, you can’t fail to learn something new and everyone feels confident enough to contribute.

Fortunately, we delivered, as you can see by the quote at the top of this post. I was sat opposite Jan, and his colleague Liz O’nions during the post-brewcamp curry and it was lovely to hear that they had both enjoyed it. So much so, that Liz has offered to take on the Brewcamp baton and is looking to host the next one up in Sandwell. Watch this space…

It was fantastic hearing about the good work being done at Shropshire Council with their new Bus Timetables site – and even better hearing them offer their experiences so other councils can do the same. Sadly, they may not be able to offer up the source code (not through choice), but they can show how they manipulated the data using the standards available. If we can get their neighbouring councils to do the same, the residents of Shropshire and surrounding areas will have a really nifty system.

I also particularly enjoyed the session on QR codes – hearing what Stuart Harrison is doing at Lichfield with them on planning notices was fascinating. It paves the way for us to start doing the same thing. Take advantage of the work being done by innovative people at councils, such as Lichfield, because it makes it easier for the top dogs to agree if you can point to someone else who has done it.

The QR code stuff has now got me thinking as to where else we could use it for council services. I have a meeting with Country Parks in a few weeks so I will certainly be looking at their area to see how it could complement the work they do.

I said it on Twitter, and I’ll say it again now: “Listening to and learning from your peers is the best kind of learning there is”. I got more out of a few hours last night (for free) than I get out of the majority of expensive conferences I *used* to go to. Bit of a no-brainer really…

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.

Show me the data!

I’m becoming even more of a data bore as the days go by…

So, we seem to be making some progress at work. People are starting to think of imaginative and innovative things we could do – live travel maps, improved fault reporting and tracking, traffic regulation orders. This is great news – a much better way of thinking about what we could do for the public with stuff we do, and people are coming to us to ask for things, not the other way around.

But… people are still getting too excited about the end result and not thinking clearly about what needs to be done in order to get the shiny, utopian iPhone app that does-everything-all-in-one-place-with-a-click-of-a-button.

So I am forced to resort to re-jigged Jerry Maguire quotes – “show me the data!!”. And from now on, that is my mantra.

There are lots of people out there who can think up these fantastic ideas for applications and websites, but these will be of limited value if the underlying data is, frankly, pants. We need people in the business to stop getting excited about apps and start getting excited about a nice clean, fresh, reliable dataset that we can expose via an API, easy peasy (says the worst developer you have ever come across in your life).

So, I’d like you to all to start thinking about your datasets as if they *were* undergarments – keep them clean and fresh, hang them out on the line to get them some fresh air. Oh, and please don’t go showing them off if you have unsightly skidmarks, what would your mother say?

A Cautionary Tale of Open Data

Disclaimer – some of the ideas within this blog post are not mine. I had lunch today with a good friend and colleague and he said some stuff which made real sense. I thought I would write them up and share, I’m saying this with a disclaimer as it provides me with 2 things – covering my butt if he finds out I’ve discussed his ideas and wants to be credited (which he will be) and me being able to pass them off as someone else’s ideas if you disagree. A win-win situation, if you’re into such phrases. Edit: Jim Morton (aka @premierkissov) is the man behind the chat behind the blog.

So, a cautionary tale….

Neil* likes to dabble with creating websites, he’s not bad at it, but he’s certainly no genius. His local council, Southfordsley District Council* have just started publishing some open data. It’s not a bad site, with some interesting excel spreadsheets, the odd RSS feed and a few shape files. During a flash of inspiration, Neil decides he is going to build a website using some of this open data (because that’s what all the cool geeks are talking about) to provide a useful service to the residents of Southfordsley District Council. How inspiring and fabulous, I hear you say. What a lovely chap with a heart of gold, devoting his time and skills to do something for me, my hero.

So Neil wants to build an application that pulls together the information about the council’s leisure facilities, a map of their locations, usage statistics and a schedule of classes and swim sessions. That way, the lucky residents of Southfordsley can, with a flick of a wrist and a click of their mouse, decide whether or not they want to go swimming today at 1pm because the trend shows this is a quiet time of day at their nearest pool and it’s before the school lessons take place. Hopefully the changing room floor will be relatively pubic hair free, heaven!

So Neil sets about building this modern technological marvel. The swimming pool usage statistics are up on the website in Excel format so that is nice and easy. So are the locations of all the swimming pools. The opening times, however, are not on the site, so Neil flexes his scraper muscles and sets about collecting this data with some funky snake related programming called Python (is that related to ASP?). The swimming sessions are also not available as open data, so Neil scrapes all of this as well. This guy really knows how to party!

Lovely. The site is pulled together with a bit of code here, and a bit of code there, and before you can say “Public Data Corporation” the new “Swimming in Southfordsley” is ready for launch. Word spreads quickly about this new site and very soon he is receiving well over 10 hits per day, yes, you heard me, 10 hits! He is a local hero, there is even a little bit about him in the local paper wearing speedos, a swimming hat and holding his laptop.

But oh, those salad days didn’t last for long. Within a couple of months things had changed and poor Neil was no longer “resident of the month”. The District Council website didn’t take into account data scrapers and they merrily changed their table data willy nilly, without a second thought for “Swimming in Southfordsley”. So very quickly Neil’s website became out of date and that’s where the real trouble started. John* turned up thinking he was going to Swim Fit, but ended up in Water Babies, 25 year old Marilyn* wanted to do bums, tums and thighs and found herself with the 50+ men only session (they didn’t mind too much), and when Steven* turned up, the pool was shut. The town was in uproar, and with his head hanging in shame, Neil shut down his website, never to utter the words “open data” again.

*All names have been changed to protect identities.

So, what is the moral of this story? Open data is not straightforward and it will only be done correctly if it is done in a sustainable manner. Data needs to be taken from source, not rehashed into a spreadsheet that is out of date before you have even published it. Consideration needs to be given to what people might do with the data, it needs to be easy for them to do something with it, and we need to ensure the data stream is durable and reliable. Would you use a website if you knew it was displaying incorrect information? No, you would go somewhere else.

I don’t have the answers, but I do know that open data won’t survive if councils believe throwing a few spreadsheets at us is the way forward.

We also need to know what people are doing with the data. Someone has already mentioned in a blog post somewhere (sorry, I’ve forgotten where now) about creating a GetTheApp site to post when you have done something with data. A great idea that could show what can be done.

The work Tim Davies is doing with his site is fabulous and a much-needed resource. But councils, please don’t make the fruits of his labour rotten because the data is a bit off.

Forehead….meet palm

Here are my thoughts after my first ever experience of an unconference – UK GovCamp 2011 at Microsoft yesterday…

Why did I want to go? Well, having chatted to quite a few campers on Twitter it seemed a great opportunity to get to meet a few of them in person. I’m a naturally enthusiastic person with a real passion to make a difference, and this seemed like a place where I might fit in. I was right, what a lovely bunch of people. All there for slightly different reasons (as can be seen by the fabulous Wordle of our introductions) but with the same drive and willingness to participate.

The first session I attended was OK, a few good discussions around why getting stuff done in Local Government is so difficult – too many meetings, no-one willing to make a decision, risk aversion, IT “getting in the way”, la-di-la-di-la. Nothing new learned, but I did manage to put my point across that IT departments don’t usually say No for the fun of it, there’s *usually* a good reason behind it. Go to them asking “I need to achieve this…” not “I want this piece of software…”.

The next session was around hyperlocalism with Will Perrin and a few other really interesting people I didn’t get chance to note down who they were. Talk About Local train up people in communities to run their own hyperlocal sites, and these are quite often the older generation. Nick Booth of podnosh made a great comment that 10 years ago you would never have imagined the people running websites would be women in their sixties, but that is now becoming more common. With the work Nick does with his Social Media Surgeries, the “older” generation are no longer being left behind, and are in fact taking the lead in using technology to help with their community work.

Lunch, *nom*nom*nom*. A bit of scheming with Carl Haggerty and Louise K *scheme*scheme*.

After lunch I helped run a session around “Doing Something with Data” and “Making Data Work for You” with Will Perrin (I think he might think I’m stalking him, I’m not, honest guv!) and quite a few others who are really heavily involved in the open data world. I shan’t try and name them all as….well….to be quite honest, my memory is shite and I just can’t remember (note to self: take more notes next time). Anyway, having chatted around the problems of open data – although publishing it can be quite tricky, it’s the getting people to do something with it that’s the hard bit, I had my forehead meet palm moment…

I’d only ever really only focussed on the geek use of open data – fabulously pretty visualisations, super-duper clever mash-ups to create a new perspective. But one of the largest groups of people that could benefit from open data are activists that need data in order to get their point across. From a simple community saying our pothole hasn’t been fixed, it’s been 6 weeks and according to your data it should have been done 4 weeks ago, to a major campaign using data to locate a rare newt colony in order to stop the development of a new motorway.  In the same way as we are getting “Data Journalists” popping up all over the place pointing, we need to enable the growth of “Data Activists”. But we need to do a number of things in order to really turn this open data concept into an actual movement:

  1. Give Tim Davies all the help you can give him with creating his open data cookbook, which is an absolutely fabulous concept that will give people ideas for what they can do with data and show them how to do it
  2. Use the same principles of the social media surgery, and get out there to train community groups to use data – Data Activism
  3. Come up with a set of a dozen or so datasets that every council should be “encouraged” to publish – not just spending data, let’s have some interesting stuff. And to publish it in the same way, so that someone can create something very easily
  4. Help the geeks meet the community activists so they can work together and fulfil their own personal goals, and do great stuff with data

Having spent a considerable amount of time and effort promoting the benefits of open data, I really don’t want to see it fade away, or be crushed by the Public Data Corporation. So I’ve been so busy trying to get data out there, I didn’t even think that approaching it from the opposite side would give me the answers. Keep Open Data Alive!!!

The next session I went along to to really learn something new, and I did. Nicky Getgood ran a session on archiving, and there were some interesting discussions around the issues of digital archiving, we saw some great old footage of a cow running around Birmingham and Andy Mabbett made a great point about the accessibility of old material and the lack of it.. I plan on doing a lot more research on this so I can take it back to work and get properly involved with the work being done with Heritage and Culture.

The final session was around the use of Communities of Practice and we eventually got on to talk about #twitternar (a great new word from Carl Haggerty) and helping LouLouK take her #lgovsm sessions to the next level. Keep your eyes peeled for interesting stuff happening with that over the next few weeks.

So, to sign off, I would like to mention a few people (because it’s good to make sure people know that they do mean something to me):

  • Karen Ramsay-Smith for the great company and the knowledge that there is someone I can rant with at work
  • Si Whitehouse for being lovely and still praising my Chocolat presentation!
  • Andy Mabbett for entertaining me, questioning my musical taste and being an all-round good guy
  • Nick Booth for smiling politely at me when I droned on about Muse, for inspiring me, and for making me feel like an old friend with hugs
  • Dan Slee – I don’t think I need to say any more, I think he would be on everyone’s list
  • Louise Kidney for great posts, honest chats and someone who needs to get more confidence and know what a good person they are
  • Will Perrin for being another inspiration
  • Dr Sue Black for being such an awesome woman that I’m ashamed to say I have never heard of until yesterday. Glad I had the guts to go up and introduce myself
  • Carl Haggerty for #twitternar and his lovely Devonshire accent