Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Platform Government cuts costs AND improves services

Who ever wins, loses (or draws) the UK's General Election next month, we are in for a world of pain.

But that may equate to the single biggest opportunity we've ever had for fundamental, structural, governmental change (not the small c 'change' you may have heard the politicians tell you they want - theirs is the kind of change which leaves them in both command and control).

The leaders can tell you they will cut a smidgeon here to invest a little there but the reality of the burden of the UK's record breaking deficit and debt is that we must expect both a reduction in services AND an increase in the amount we all have to contribute for them.
If you had a contract between you and UK plc you would be quite within your rights to tear it up and take your business elsewhere.

Unfortunately we don't have that option (yet... the when of that 'yet' is quite another story which we must leave for another day. Suffice to say the networked world doesn't recognise geo-political borders).

Government, does however have an option which can both better target resources AND engage voluntary effort which will have the net effect of both cutting costs AND improving services.
And just as businesses require crisis to change (excellent performers, or flat-line ones like the Ad Industry tend toward head-in-the-sandism) so perhaps our crisis of cuts and tax rises will provoke just the kind of strategic shift in how we govern ourselves that we so clearly need.

I'm talking about Platform Government of course.
To reiterate: an organisation should use its available resources to discover people who care about the same issues they do, bring them together, surface what they think needs fixing and work with them (enable and join with them) to fix it.

Government - or 'resource allocation against the needs of the people' to give it its full name (ok, that's my definition) has:
  • Never had a better set of tools to discover the real time needs of people.
  • Never had a better set of tools to engage with people.
  • Never had a better set of tools to enable people. I'm talking about social networks, technologies and tools of course.
Government must be redesigned to meet the needs of, and take advantage of, this networked world.

Our current process of Government, like mass media, has been built to serve the lowest common denominator needs of a mass production world. It's resulted in one-size-fits-all policies, resource allocation (and, incidentally, political parties).

That world is ending.

Now we can all find people who care about the same stuff we do in real time. We can come together to discuss an issue. We can surface what needs fixing. And in engaging in the conversation we discover that we care enough about this thing that we are prepared to act to make it better (at least enough of us to make change). The Government can be a platform for exactly this kind of collaborative innovation.

Apply this to things such as policy development: Instead of a small group of Government appointed experts beavering away; share the aim.
A platform government approach would open its doors to that freely given expertise and insight.

And how about that issue of resource allocation? Ongoing online listening will not only reveal where the people who care about each issue are (so you can invite them to participate), it'll also reveal what the issues that matter are, where, and in real time. And it'll reveal this in a long-tail, rather than lowest common denominator, way - ie it will reveal all the niche interests that need serving, rather than the single biggest need.

The result of this is a wikifixing approach to resource allocation - to make Government services a better fit with actual, real-time need. That equals less waste and more effective services for more of the people they are meant to serve. Real efficiency.

The flipside (other upside of this remarkable win-win) is that in engaging people in the change they want, you get an army of volunteers to make the change happen. More people willing to take responsibility instead of leaving it to 'the government' to sort out. More people willing to put their action where their conversation is.

And that means better services can be delivered at lower cost because more of us get involved in making, sharing and delivering them.

We could maintain taxes at current rates, provide better services at lower cost, and pay off that deficit.

Oh, and we'd also end up with a Government people felt part of - which is kind of a good thing, since it was meant to be ours all along.

Who knows, we may even start trusting politicians again? Ok, maybe that's an ask too far...

Monday, April 26, 2010

Foursquare and the impact of an information revolution on privacy

Some time ago I decided to continue my experiment with FourSquare without hitting the 'share with Facebook' or 'share with Twitter' buttons.

I didn't want to irritate those who chose to follow my tweets, for example, but hadn't opted in to be my FourSquare friend.

I also thought there was some wisdom in limiting the people with whom I was sharing such precise, personal real-time geo-location. (image courtesy Robert Couse-Baker)

So I was a bit miffed to find that if a friend of yours is in the same location and you are both checked in, and he chooses to auto-tweet his FourSquare update, then the default is that he will share in Twitter that you are with him, too. ("Y is at X with @davidcushman).

And if his tweets aren't protected, (whose are?) then your location, who you were with and when, becomes, by default, public domain - and plenty searchable.

Whether or not the unintended sharing of my real time geolocation against my preferences matters or not doesn't sound like much of an issue - until you want to do clandestine stuff. An adhoc job interview, political deal making, affairs of the heart, etc.

Now of course in those circumstances, the wise man may choose not to geolocate themselves within or without FourSquare.

The problem though is that we may be mentioned in a tweet or status update by who ever we are with.
I don't blame FourSquare for this. I don't even seek to single them out. We are still scrabbling for the social etiquette of all this. I rarely ask, for example 'do you mind if I tweet who I'm with?'

Mostly we have the good sense to know what is right and what is wrong - when to seek permission and when to just go ahead (Antony Mayfield's excellent book, Me and My Web Shadow discusses some of this - I'll be reviewing it in detail before too long - disclosure, Antony and I sit together on the board of CitizensOnline).

But we are going through an information revolution; not just in who controls publication, distribution and user experience, but also in the volume of what has hitherto been viewed as personal, private and, to anyone other than our peers, trivial information.

In revolutions it's fair to say there's plenty of stuff that needs living in and through before we start reshaping definitions of wrong and right.

Indeed in a networked, group-forming world it's perfectly reasonable to expect niches of etiquette to emerge. One man's over-sharing may be another man's under-sharing.

If etiquette is the aggregated social conventions of a society, then 'societies' (adhoc communities of purpose) will be manifold, niche and global. One size won't fit all.

Which is all well and good when what is shared about you is shared by people you know. But that's just part of the issue.
Take a look at the picture below (that's Tory leader David Cameron at Starbucks at St Pancras).

What if either party hadn't wished to be known to be in the presence of the other, or to share that they were at x location at y time (google streetview, anyone?).

This picture was taken by someone neither of us knew and published to people that we (at least I) did.

I'm not objecting (at least not on this occasion), merely pointing out the reality of concepts of privacy about geolocation in a connected world.

Privacy seeks to obscure truth. Often to an individual's personal benefit.
Perhaps we are just going to have to get used to living in a state of truth - with the wider - by necessity less personal - benefits that may offer.
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Saturday, April 17, 2010

Welcome to the No-Time Web

Time is a construct - a way for us to make sense of a series of events. It is the way we bring clarity to what would otherwise be at risk of being a very confusing reality.
Theoretical physics tells us everything that will ever exist already exists and is at all points in space and time simultaneously.
Perhaps I'm over simplifying and or being far too generalist? What is certain is that the notions of past, present and future are cast seriously into doubt by modern physical thinking; and also that time is the fourth dimension for us three-dimensional dwellers, but that superstring theory requires TEN dimensions.

We don't need to delve much more deeply into this, you will be relieved to know, for us to have a paddle at the edges of these philosophical depths.

Loosely, there are all these additional dimensions, all things that ever happen all happen at once and at every other point in time/space... and we manage to stumble our way through this hard-to-imagine stuff by layering on the 'made in the brain' concepts of time and space. Things appear to happen in order because that's the way we make sense of 'everything'.

A small example. It's widely thought that the way we dream replicates this idea. A whole bucketful of concepts get thrown out and strewn around by our subconscious as we sleep (where time and space is not experienced and so have little value) and these concepts are hurriedly assembled into a story, complete with a linear progression and played out in spaces we can 'get our heads round' as we wake - in order for our conscious mind to make any sense/derive any value from them. The 'dream' if you like, only happens as you wake up. The raw material is generated as you sleep but the plot gets layered on as the conscious mind kicks in.

For many centuries we have supplied a linear narrative to understand the jumble of reality. This makes perfectly excellent sense to us. We plant a seed. It grows. We harvest the outcome. How could it be any other way?

But the emerging reality is a place which is a collection of events. There is no hard and fast order. No hard and fast way in which this reality must be experienced.

In the past (if you'll pardon the continued use of the term) - a mass production world required defined processes with progress contingent on the successful completion of the previous step; a mass production line.

Computers don't function like that when they are processing - Random Access Memory is very different from the indexing you'll find of books in your local library, for example.

And with the web too, we pull information we need at the point we need it. The Web is all of us using all of us as RAM.

This challenges our comfortable linear thinking. It raises doubts about the value of time and 'the right' order that things do or must happen in.

On the web being the first or being the most 'up to date' is less important than being the most relevant - being useful in a particular set of circumstances and from a particular perspective - much more than at a particular time. Hence the rise of the real time web.

In the real time web we find people, things, ideas etc which are useful to us right now. We don't need to have grown-up with the people, we don't need to understand that we must know what A and B are to know why A + B = C (we can go straight to C). We don't need to layer on time or space to make sense of this reality.

What is useful to us at 'this point' is important - not what is newest (a challenge to 'news' that media orgs must get to grips with). Relevant beats recent.

Perhaps the real-time web is in fact a misnomer. Perhaps instead we should call it the no time web. It is a place where processes of progression are less important; where we do loads of things at once - experience lots of things, all at once.

Our growing experience of this has the potential to change the way we experience every element of our reality - not just our online information gathering.

As we learn, we move from temporal order to what some would call chaos. But I wonder if this seeming chaos isn't in fact closer to the reality of our universe than we have ever allowed ourselves to experience before.

The web may be opening our eyes to a RAM reality that sits behind the time-ordered reality we have layered on until now.

Taking those blinkers off is likely to be enlightening and frightening in equal measure.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Who gets my vote? We do

I have a first and easy step I'd like to suggest the UK Parliament takes in its pursuit of more open government.

It'll put its members in touch with the people who elect them - with the views of the nation. And it'll do that without requiring them to move out of their first class rail carriages. Can't expect too much all in one go, can we?
I recently asked David Cameron to tell us what he thought, rather than tell us what he thought he ought to tell us.
It seems politicians - with some rare exceptions - see this as a step too far.

Well, us lot, Joe Public, the electorate, this army of self-publishers, have no such qualms.
We are quite happy to say what we think. We don't even mind being proven wrong on occasion.

And, unlike the man who would be our Prime Minister, we do publish what we think. A lot. Particularly about things we care about. (image courtesy kberberi)

Things we care about include parliamentary bills. The Digital Economy Bill this week amply demonstrated how a community of purpose can discover one another and act rapidly around the social object of a piece of parliamenary legislation.

Similar communities of purpose exist around any issue - on or off the statute book.

So I wonder how the debate may have shaped had the pitiful number of MPs in the commons for the second reading of the #DEBill been able to see for themselves the thousands of comments that were being made, the excellent points raised by thousands of people on Twitter; the crowd-sourced brilliance of the nation our MPs are there to serve?

So let's see a big screen - the twitterfall (all the comments about a certain, usually hashtagged, subject - collated and shown in real-time) for each debate - installed in The Commons, The Lords and - where appropriate - committee rooms, too.

Listening is the first step to open government. And this could be a first small step to listening.
Note: this is already happening on a handful of MPs mobile phones - trust me on this - so please let's not get into arguments about 'distraction'.

Listening, open government, shouldn't be done for some kind of altruistic, touchy-feely reason (though none of that is bad). It should be done because it will improve MPs' decision making processes. It will improve our legislation.

How so? Because MPs are generalists. They have to be. And for whatever given subject there is a community of purpose ready to come together to offer expertise and real-world experience far in advance of anything the House can muster on its own.

We now have the social tools for communities of purpose to self-organise in rapid, adhoc ways. The #debill campaign, 20,000 letters to MPs in 7 days etc, shows it is happening and will continue to happen. Exponentially.

It is easier now than at any time in history for people to discover other people who care about the same issue they do and to organise to make change.

Government can join in if it wishes. If it doesn't, it just might find itself out of a job.

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Twitter Follower Optimisation (beware the TFO)

Just as search engine optimisation grew up to secure ever-larger audiences for websites, so it is inevitable that we will see a new Twitter-inspired industry emerge: Twitter Follower Optimisation (TFO... from now on).

Right now 'social media gurus' are analysing the optimum key terms in tweets which lead to an increase in your follower numbers - and also identifying the ones that increase the rate at which you are 'dropped'.

Part of the TFO process may include some sensible stuff about the kinds of things to say about yourself in your bio, what you should call yourself, what kind of avatar picture you can get away with - and which are the appropriate links to display on your profile.

But too much will focus on training yourself to tweet the optimal words - just as SEO strategists will advise on how to sprinkle key terms in your long form content. iPad. (see what I mean?)

I'd like to say this will be a short-lived industry. But such is the growth of Twitter that there will be Twitter virgins for many years to come - many eager to bag a large follower collection rapidly.

Ultimately the approach will fail. TFO focuses on the attraction of an audience toward a specific node. This was a reasonable strategy for the nodal world of websites. But for the interaction-heavy, node-light world of the likes of Twitter, it is a fail.

Three reasons: 

One: Optimisation techniques will surface the lowest common denominator key terms for tweets which attract and tweets which repel. Lowest common denomators don't fit the long tail world - and the adhoc self-forming niche community world of Twitter is certainly long tail. One man's Leeds Utd is another man's Manchester Utd.

Two: Humans want to talk to other humans. Adding in follower-optimised terms makes you talk less like a human. Humans want to follow other humans.

Three: Twitter is less about attracting to a node, more about adhoc discovery of interaction between nodes.

This is important. Twitter is interaction heavy and node light. Your profile - effectively the hub of your interaction - is as much of a node as you get to have in Twitter - it is no heavier in content and meaning than the average business card. If you have a presence at all, it is as the sum of your interactions.

'My followers' (and I'm always uncomfortable calling the people listed under 'followers' mine - they are just as much the 'property' of anyone else they follow- and just as little) aren't attracted to me-the-node - to my business card.

They haven''t signed up to the @davidcushman club. They are attracted by my interactions - with them and with others. I can't get them to follow me on my own. It's their choice based on how I interact with others.

If they like the look of enough of those interactions they will follow - to get easier access to those interactions - more opportunities to join in.

To this end the equivalent of 'Site' in SEO is not 'Follower' in TFO - but your profile. You may be able to optimise a tweet but perhaps not a node - and you certainly can't optimise the two-way flow of the interactions - because you offer only one part of it.

No - when the TFO experts come knocking, show them to door. Learn the basics about your profile but, more importantly, deploy the basics of just being human via Twitter.

Perhaps if there's anything to optimise, the focus should be on who you follow, not who you hope to bag to follow you.
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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Three thoughts about the iPad

Steve & Apple Inc.Image by marcopako  via Flickr
I've seen all the excitement about the potential of the iPad as the salvation of traditional media. I see some of that. I watched someone on the train this morning consuming plain text on an e-reader. Looked kind of... grey.
I can see it converting some traditional magazine buyers and TV viewers to consuming their broadcast content a little more interactively - a little more tailored to their downtime and their personal consumption preferences.

But mostly a device connected to the internet will always better serve participatory activity. This is the place where people do stuff - rather than have it done to them. The value created by all rather than a few.

So while the gorgeousness of the turny-page thing and the click-to-play video thing will be a pleasant distraction for those used to print, it won't allow them to write the magazine.

In this respect, traditional media hanging its hopes on the iPad is a little like scribes banking on the printing press to mass produce illuminated Bibles to keep them in a job. Broadcast media is not a great fit with a peer to peer environment - just as hand-painted books don't make a great deal of sense in print. And the killer app of the iPad, like every other wifi/3G-enabled device on planet earth... remains the internet.

So that's the theory. But there are also a couple of practical points.

First: I want my music updates to synch to all my listening points at once. It's a nightmare having to update all the ipods in my house every time someone gets a bit of new content to add to them all - even via iTunes.
Clunky, restrictive, crash-tastic and not the intuitive experience for first timers the black-polo-neck brigade would have you believe.

The solution, of course is streaming and it is cloud. Apple must know that, surely?

I hear rumours of a streaming service from Apple later this year. Which should have Spotify quaking in its boots.

Which dovetails nicely with my last point. Apple has made its fortune by being very device specific and device focused. To survive in the age of the cloud it must change.

For example - I'd love to see the iPod speaker doc that an iPad will fit in. My iPhone isn't compatible with mine - so good luck!

Already the device-specific nature of Apple's offerings are so focused they are becoming incompatible with each other. Some older macbook pro's won't charge an iPad either. Screw the legacy hey?

If they are prepared to do that to some current devices- why not all? Imagine all your ipods becoming as useless as your portable CD player. It's going to happen - and soon.

Right now I am waiting before committing to another long-term phone contract - waiting on the iPhone 4G due this summer (I have an out-of-contract 3G currently).

I'm waiting because of the lock-in apple has on my contacts, my music and all those apps.

But I'm starting to wonder how wise a strategy that is.

Services are everything in the age of the cloud - services that play brilliantly out on every possible device.

Those who make the best ones will win. Interesting that it has been outsiders (such as LalA, Spotify and LastFM, who are disrupting the iTunes model and showing the way Apple must behave.

Spotify doesn't make devices. Nor does Google. And perhaps one day soon, nor will Apple.
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The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?