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