(photo from London looks)
Can technology improve democracy?
The timing of the Bristol Local by Social event is apposite given events in Egypt and the Mehgrab.
The spread of protest, of ideas, of revolution has been rapid, thanks in part to technology. It’s mainly satellite TV, avidly consumed in a society where other forms of media are strictly controlled.
Closer to home, mobile and web technologies have been used extensively to crowdsource demonstrations such as the tax dodger demos.
Technology, in this format, has the power to coordinate and facilitate.
On a slightly less radical tack,the Local by Social conference examined how apps can help life be better and perhaps improve the effectiveness of democracy.
That buy in is at both political and official level. And, the private and third sector is heavily involved.
We heard from the Leader, Cllr Janke, about a number of neat little apps that have been developed within the environment.
There are apps like Mobile Pie which combine environmental issues and food supply. The excellent Hills are Evil provides information on hill gradients and other obstacles for those with mobility issues: a better A to B if you use a wheelchair, bike or have to manipulate a pushchair.
Data is essential to make these apps work. There’s data in many sources, much of behind official walls or tied up by proprietory systems.
As Ingrid Koehler (LGID) explained, opening up data has the power to change the nature of governance. Connections between the citizen and data can help bring about networked governance. Data is out there on spending and there is scope for apps covering transport, news and decision making. But, that’s just the start.
The development of the Knowledge Hub promises to provide a huge resource for those working within the system. Communities of Practice is already a great way to share information and ideas. KHub, according to Brendan Harris, takes this to a new level.
KHub is web 2.0. It will reduce searching time, helping efficiencies. It will also offer tools such as an extranet to help create total places websites.
Carrie Bishop from FutureGov used a couple of familiar examples of how technology enhanced engagement. The way Cory Booker, the charismatic Mayor of Newark, uses Twitter is awesome, interacting with the public, dealing with problems and issues in a direct and personal way.
It’s not just about the technology. Leadership and transparency are essential to improve engagement.
- transparency is not just about data, it’s a way to converse and helps move from a position of command to collaboration
- state won’t do it on its own, there is a store of expertise out there
- journey just being: put the data out there and see what happens, you can’t control it, the interesting stuff might not attract attention
A good point came up in discussion: it might be a good idea for areas perhaps lacking a core of external expertise to sponsor a developer in residence.
In the afternoon session, Clare Reddington from iShed reported on some local examples of how data had been repurposed into both practical and artistic ways. There are interesting ways in which data can be used to educate and interact without appearing as a bunch of numbers in a spreadsheet. Attaching stories to data can make it engaging.
Rich Watts showed how social media – geolocation tools like Foursquare and Gowalla – can play an important part in social service delivery. Local authorities have a role to catalyse and aggregate information. As with other sectors, shifting the information asymmetry is important to democratise services.
- data is not just for developers: we all use spreadsheets, maps, visualisation and… highlighter pens; there’s three levels involved – finding facts rebalances data asymmetry (extract); interpret information (report); creating interfaces
- data does more than make apps
- apps not just on line: postcode newspaper, games (bump game)
- not just about utility: can be digital pamphleteering, asbo-meter vs. awe-someter
- hacks route around problems; accessibility, accuracy, sustainability
- understand how broke before you try to fix it: Freecycle emails, just filter rather than creating a brilliant app
- think of working with data like cooking: experiment
Mike McCarthy from Overlay talked about the Hills are Evil a neat route planning app, design to alleviate “pain”. From geolocation data sourced from a number of official and user grabbed datasets, the app takes account of cobbles, drop curbs and hill gradients to help people with wheelchair users, cyclists, mums with pushchairs – anyone needed to take account of physical obstacles.
It provides visualisation based on the “pain” of obstacles: tweet “pain” with #painscale. Overlay are looking to expand coverage beyond Bristol and want to share the data, creating an API. Mike’s goal is to have a button on Google Maps, giving a filter based on the user’s needs.
And so, to the app workshops…
Despite coming up with the idea of a beach app with NDC colleagues Andrew and Steve, I chose to work on the democracy app about which I’ve already written. Other apps included:
- Transport: parking key: ” put in your parameters, distance, prices, spaces, restrictions etc remembers where you parked your car”
- Find local:“Allotmentville” surplus crops for redistribution, searchable, on a map, date specific
- Coast app: mashup of beach and coastal data
- Volunteering: matching volunteers to causes
- Expenditure app: “the cost of stuff” creating dynamic comment; use the community to validate and highlight the good ideas; drive down the cost of FOI; makes consultation dynamic; encourages good news; allows comparables across authorities
It sounds like the Saturday hacker session fleshed out a lot of these ideas. I’ll leave it to them to report back.
Lessons from the day:
- data comes in many forms
- data can create conversations between the state and people
- the conversation may be messy, but it is worth it in the end
- release the data, shift the data asymmetry, let the community repurpose
- let the developer community create the apps; but, the state can incubate and encourage development
- messy data is better than no data: the community can help clean up the data
- apps can be offline: much of the population may not have access to online apps
- don’t fear open data and transparency, it’s a step towards improving democracy