Yesterday I joined a large group of people whose idea of the best way to spend a beautiful sunny Saturday was to gather together in London’s City Hall and discuss ideas for ways that London can get the most out of the opportunities that ‘smart city’ developments offer.
I found it a really interesting and useful day, hats off to @LDN_CDO Theo Blackwell for gathering together a really impressive group of people and a huge thank you to everyone involved with organising the day (especially those who’d come in from places as far away as Devon to help make sure that the day ran smoothly). I really enjoyed catching up with colleagues and contacts I’d met through the Twitter-sphere but hadn’t met before in person, and I also got to meet lots of new people who have a shared passion for civic technology.
As with Local Gov Camp last autumn, I found myself struggling to decide which sessions I wanted to prioritise attending because there were too many interesting topics pitched by attendees… (the full session list is online here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1nL9xrbkclyVlSyMRcRC4bUv0EQUcOEmVv0h3z4NO1x4).
In the end I picked sessions covering:
- Data gathering from internet of things technologies in public spaces
- Use of smart technology to improve our environment in London
- Ways that we can understand the value of our data
- Ideas for building data literacy and an informed data culture
- How we might create a culture that celebrates failure as a necessary part of innovation
Here are a few notes of things that I thought were particularly interesting from the sessions. (With apologies to the pitchers / conveners of the sessions where I didn’t note down their names!)
Data gathering in public spaces
My first session was a discussion was pitched by @rossatkin and was an opportunity to reflect on the use of ‘smart’ infrastructure in public spaces and the risks of potentially alarming levels of surveillance without public awareness and control. Some of the people taking part in the conversation worked for companies (large and small) who are developing technologies in this field and that made for a healthy and interesting discussion.
My key takeaway from this was that we risk a pendulum effect, swinging from doe-eyed tech enthusiasm with no checks and balances, over to ‘ultra’ levels of anxiety about what might be possible, potentially inventing concerns that don’t actually exist. Recent news has highlighted a number of examples of where not understanding data gathering and sharing can result in concerning consequences, and I think it’s really important that we have a measured discussion about data ethics and the limits and controls placed on data gathering (which inevitably links to how we approach GDPR). I think that a key area is understanding the powers that local, regional and national government actually have to influence this and also people’s awareness of what they are trading in return for access to otherwise useful services. (Jaron Lanier’s book ‘Who Owns the Future’ is a good read if you’re interested in this: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/27/who-owns-future-lanier-review).
Using smart technology to improve our environment
This session covered a wide range of topics including the cleanliness of public spaces, air quality and recycling. Some of the points we talked through are fairly widely covered already, but there were interesting points raised about how regulation can be used to encourage positive behaviours and outcomes, how smart use of data might encourage people to recycle more (eg gamification type approaches) and other cultural ‘nudges’.
My conclusion at the end was that there is quite a lot that we could learn from how retailers are exploring smart technology for marketing. And I think we should be thinking about how we can use existing global scale platforms to do this, not creating niche public sector versions of Facebook etc.
While there are obvious and important concerns about privacy and the appropriate use of data which will need to be taken into account, it strikes me that there could be important opportunities to encourage people and communities to live in more environmentally sustainable ways which I’m interested to explore further.
Understanding the value of data
I was intrigued by the pitch for this session, which was asking how we might put a value to the data that is held by the public sector. After an initial moment of alarm when producing equations was mentioned (it’s quite some time since I did my A level Maths…!), it developed into a very interesting discussion which made me think.
We talked through a number of different ways that we can assess the value of data, and also reflected on some of the ways that value might be maximised (or reduced). If you can read my scribbles my sketch below captures some of the points we talked through.
I was particularly impressed by the way that Transport for London look for wider societal value from their data with a real focus on making it open and accessible, resulting in a large number of independent apps that use TfL data in useful ways. It also occurred to me that we need to consider the constraints that we might inadvertently put on this value if the way we publish data is too restrictive. It’s a delicate balance of public value, respect for privacy and understanding how data is impacting on the wider technology and civic ecosystem.
Building data literacy and a data culture
This was a really interesting session run by @holly_armitage and @la_gaia, looking at a number of aspects of data literacy and culture. This was also the session that made us do most standing up and moving around, so my notes were much more limited than for other sessions!
I found it interesting to reflect on how we could consider different levels of data literacy, with a foundation level being to make sure that people know enough to prevent harm, and also the different but linked responsibilities across business, government and citizens themselves. I was also struck by the suggestion that there might be parallels with other social changes, such as car ownership, where individually rational behaviour (ie owning a family car) actually has profound societal effects when a large proportion of the population do the same thing.
Creating a culture that celebrates failure
@greenman pitched this session and introduced us to the 2-4-more approach for running a collaborative workshop (I might have got the name for that wrong!). I really liked this and will be stealing it for team events I’m running soon. It starts out with people working in pairs, then doubles that by joining pairs up and finally the group feedback together. I thought that this was a good way to explore ideas quickly and also gave people who don’t like speaking out to a large group more opportunity to share their thinking.
There were lots of useful ideas from this session and a general view that iterative, agile approaches reduce risk by making ‘failures’ smaller and more visible early on, making it relatively easy and low cost to make course corrections, whereas ‘waterfall’ approaches often result in the issues building up until there’s a much more traumatic event later on in the project. I shared how we have built some of these ideas into our #HackIT Manifesto (http://hackit.org.uk/how-we-work/hackit-manifesto), setting out ways of working that we are adopting across our team, and our use of week notes to work aloud – including the suggestion that Matthew Cain (our Head of Digital & Data) made recently that we include lessons we’re learning as part of that to encourage a culture where failure is OK and the key is to learn, adapt and improve.
The main question I’m now asking myself is whether we need to be doing more to share the lessons we’re learning with our senior colleagues. It struck me that there’s a risk that even if a team is working in an agile way, if senior managers don’t see how learning is being built into their work we might risk looking more polished than we actually are and miss an important part of changing the way that we make decisions at senior levels.
A few thoughts about buying and suppliers
I wasn’t able to get along to the session that was looking at improving the ways that the public sector buys technology, as it clashed with one of the other sessions I wanted to go to. But I’d definitely recommend that people check out the UK Government Digital Marketplace (https://www.digitalmarketplace.service.gov.uk). We’re using this extensively at Hackney and are finding both the G Cloud and Digital Outcomes & Specialists frameworks incredibly useful, helping us to buy better services, at lower cost, dramatically faster than has previously been the case with other approaches (OJEU etc). We’re still learning how to get the most from these and recently held a conversation with a group of the suppliers we’ve been working with to hear about their experience of selling to Hackney and reflect on ways that we can improve further (you can see what we learned from that on our blog here: https://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/working-with-suppliers-to-develop-better-digital-services). If you’re a supplier interested in selling to the public sector I would strongly recommend looking into getting your services onto the Digital Marketplace.
I also thought it was worth noting the quality of the conversations that I had with people from the supplier community at the event. I’ve found that other conferences have often involved far too many ‘hard sell’ conversations, which actually results in me going out of my way to avoid having to speak with any suppliers. And experience of unsolicited marketing online and by email has had a similar effect, resulting in a recent collaborative effort to write up an ‘Unsolicited Marketing Service Standard’ spelling out the behaviours that we would like suppliers to follow: https://docs.google.com/document/d/14F2qqLUcOOo41VGA6bVKxjF-fxZicUv-GrGXefyXzUk. Yesterday was quite different. I met lots of people who work for companies (large, medium and small) that sell into the public sector and I didn’t have any of the dreaded ‘please get me out of here’ moments. It was really reassuring to find such a consistent focus on exploring interesting topics and looking for ways that we might make things better for citizens, and I learned a lot as a result.
Thanks again to @LDN_CDO and everyone behind the event for a really valuable day!