I have something to say about that…

Video: Making things open (OSCON 2015)

I gave the opening keynote at OSCON 2015 in Portland, Oregon. I was speaking on behalf of the UK government and the Government Digital Service.

Summary of the talk from the conference site:

Openness is good for Government on many levels — open data, open standards, open source, open markets. Where we set the way we work in Government, it’s important to let industry determine the technical standards we work with. We can’t do everything ourselves and by making our own code and data open we have an opportunity to gain from innovation as well as support other services to be developed by suppliers of all sizes.

Make things open, it makes things better.

My memories of the 7/7 bombings

Ten years ago today… my morning commute to work was disrupted. There was much confusion at Waterloo Station. The tube station was closing, and everyone was milling about near the trains.  There were rumours of trouble in multiple parts of the tube network, but no one seemed to understand the disruption.

I hopped on a bus and called an old friend, who I knew had been up all night working on her PhD on nuclear terrorism.  I thought she might interpret the news better than I could.

“They’re reporting ‘a power surge,'” she told me as my bus wound through Holborn towards Farringdon.  It’s hard to tell what’s actually happening.  Be careful just in case.”

I got to work — one of the few who did, it turned out — and was asked to make a list of my team and work out who was still alive. While the sirens raced past our office buildings en route to various hospitals, I made the phone calls. I never want to do that again.

(They were all alive, fortunately. But I counted those endless sirens, thinking of those teams across the capital — and families — who were finding that some of their members weren’t.)

I remember phoning my mother and waking her up.  “You’re going to see that there’s something going on in London,” I told her. “I just want you to know, when you see that, that I’m at work and I’m okay.”  She blearily thanked me and apparently went straight to watch the news… which was already reporting explosions.  I got a somewhat teary voicemail from her a number of hours later — when the phone networks were no longer clogged — thanking me and telling me she loved me.

The City was evacuated in the afternoon, and I headed across London on foot towards friends in South Kensington (since I lived too far away to get back to my home). All the Londoners I encountered had a surreal quality of shock at the events and a heightened, startled awareness of each other… We weren’t just obstacles in each other’s journeys anymore — we talked. We nodded to each other. We shared our worried looks and our stoic laughter. As we all tried to work out how to get home, it felt like we actually saw each other for the first time. We understood we were in it together.

When I got to Hyde Park Corner, a couple of brave TfL bus drivers had picked up their routes — all the more courageous when we didn’t yet know what had happened to cause the explosions, nor whether it was truly finished. I stepped onto a bus and was humbled to see the driver, as confused and stricken as the rest of us, determined to do his part: London was on the move, and he could help us get home. What a gesture of solidarity. I thanked him profusely.

Coincidentally, I found one of the South Ken friends at the back of that bus, and we went on to their flat to make margaritas with his wife. There was lots to talk about that night, and to be grateful for. And to mourn. We’d each experienced it differently, but we’d been through it together — and London is never more amazing than when it finds a reason to pull together.

Uses for open data

I’m often asked these days why people would bother with open data. (Here, I’m using LinkedGov’s definition of open data.)  I thought it would be useful to write down and gather some feedback, see if we can refine these categories further.

Thus far, it seems, the uses are boiling down to four categories:

1.  Transparency

Broadly speaking, this means getting a better view of what is going on inside government or the public sector.  This audience covers both the non-public sector and the public sector itself.

Examples:

  • Infrastructure:  Transport timetables, traffic information or road potholes for a journey planner app
  • Accountability:  Financial and budget statements for armchair auditors
  • Media:  Potential headlines and stories for journalists
  • Sharing information resources:  Formal research available to inform academic and professional enquiries (for example, data from NHS clinical studies informing projects hosted by universities or industry). This group also includes management and demographic statistics, like the number of people in a particular benefits programme
  • Status and progress updates: performance data, such as the number of outcomes met in a specific project
  • News: announcements about public sector activities, grant opportunities and new ways to interact with government
  • Community information:  local planning applications, crime statistics or upcoming events which impact a neighbourhood

2.  Delivering services to/on behalf of government

Open data allows commercial and third sector organisations to have a closer relationship with customers and funding sources in government and the public sector.

Examples:

  • Delivering front-line services on behalf of a governmental or public body:  As an example, the train operating companies might benefit from greater access to forecasts of passenger activity from Transport for London.
  • Marketing to government:  If a photocopier sales department can see which public sector offices are likely to need a new photocopier soon, they can target their marketing appropriately.

3.  Improving commercial activities outside of government

Many existing business models could benefit significantly from greater access to public data.  A few examples:

  • Smoothing commercial transactions. A tool for selecting the ideal import tariffs or a faster route of calculating tax could provide significant savings for a commercial goods company.
  • Enhancing an existing offering.  A tour operating company could plan more accurately (or prompt their clients to plan better) with weather data from the Met Office.
  • Targeting marketing.  Census data and council tax bands, for example, could help a new company work out where its target market is, helping them to concentrate their comms efforts in the most efficient place

4.  Efficiency

Much of the public sector could benefit from better access to their data and the information contained within it.  Examples include:

  • Procurement:  Comparing costs and existing contracts when looking at procurement for something new.
  • Evidence base: Better informed policy development and decision-making
  • Reducing the load: Less enquiries from the public (specifically requests under the Freedom of Information Act) and from within the public sector (for example, parliamentary questions from ministers to civil servants in their department).

What are your thoughts?  How can we refine this model and make it more complete?

We the people vs Facebook, Google et al.

A theme in this morning’s news items struck me:

It’s interesting to me that these issues are based in the same quandry: how do we, as a society, deal with placing the control of our content in the hands of a few big providers?

The writers and the publishers – a contract

User-generated content comes out of a relationship: the writers (us) write things, generate data through web activities, and create links to people, while the hosts (Facebook and Google, here) gather the information and do neat things with it.  They share our posts with our friends, connect us with ads that might interest us, and host our status updates and regulate who sees what we are up to.

The first two links are public retaliations for what the plaintiffs feel is a betrayal of trust by Google and Facebook.  They put their trust in these two tools to safeguard their content. They are unhappy that Google and Facebook changed the rules (or perhaps violated their side of the agreement) with the users by changing the defaults on what information is public.

This, to me, is an age-old “breach of contract” question.  Have Google and Facebook in fact violated the terms of service, to which they agreed when each user opened an account with them?  And if so, what do they owe us?

Making amends

The next story is about Facebook, having heard the outcry (well represented by the aforementioned lawsuit) and attempting to re-establish good will.  Though they aren’t admitting that they have done anything wrong, they appear to be trying to regain some of the trust they lost in November and December by offering users more control over who sees posts from the various applications they use.  (The example cited in the Facebook blog explanation: I’ll let the Someecards app post to my close friends only, but My Causes can post to everyone including the boss.)

As the Facebook announcement says, “Facebook is designed to give you control over the information you share.”  I think they are hoping that even greater control will result in a stronger feeling of contract and trust between the users and their tools.

Be careful what you say…


“The danger is publicly telling people where you are. This is because it leaves one place you’re definitely not… home.”
Pleaserobme.com

Pleaserobme.com is a tongue-in-cheek reminder that all information posted on the web is public.  Also that most posts can be added to other bits of content for more context than we might intend.

Pleaserobme.com takes basic posts to Twitter from the location-based app Foursquare, which announces where a user is when they check in at that location.  As the Pleaserobme site says, “The danger is publicly telling people where you are. This is because it leaves one place you’re definitely not… home.”

There are a number of ways to work out where someone lives, not the least of which is that many homes are being added to Foursquare as check-in destinations. Sure it’s nice to know where your friends are, but this could be problematic!

(Side note: when I added a new location to Foursquare on Tuesday, it offered me the choice to have that location be private among my friends.  It appears that they are already trying to counter this problem.)

But the idea is that, by announcing on Twitter that I have checked in at a location that isn’t home, then all my valuables at home are open for the taking.  Obviously, that’s not good.

As a content-generator in this relationship, I have to be aware of what information I am releasing to my hosting platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Google, etc.) and how that information can be compiled.

Are we making progress?

We can talk at length about the generational change in individual data, and how kids today will grow up happily sharing every last bit of their lives on the Web.  (I’m not convinced of this, by the way- I think they will grow out of a lot of their exhibitionism.  Caution and desire for privacy often comes with age.)

But these stories represent, to me, an ongoing push-me-pull-you tension of expectations and service provision, as the capabilities and they way they’re used continually race ahead of each other.  I think our society and laws will continue to swing back and forth on privacy issues as we re-establish our norms and our expectations for companies that hold our content.

*Photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/38057014@N05/3542597760/

Collaborative learning resources

Just a quick follow-up to my feature on collaborative learning over at LGEO Research….  I’ve been asked for references, so here they are!

e-Learning Anaesthesia (eLA)
This is a joint programme between the Department of Health’s e-Learning for Healthcare (e-LfH) and the Royal College of Anaesthetists. They are collaboratively developing clinically-appropriate, peer-reviewed online learning modules to help trainee anasesthetists to revise for their FRCA exams.

Dimitracopoulou, A. (2005)  Designing collaborative learning systems: current trends & future research agenda.
Computer Support for Collaborative Learning (Proceedings of the 2005 conference on Computer support for collaborative learning: learning 2005: the next 10 years!) Taipei, Taiwan. p 115 – 124.
This is a good background paper on computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) and models for the different kinds of systems.

Smith, B. L and MacGregor, J. T. (1992) ‘What is Collaborative Learning?‘  Abbreviation of Smith and MacGregor’s article, “What Is Collaborative Learning?” in Collaborative Learning: A Sourcebook for Higher Education, by Anne Goodsell, Michelle Maher, Vincent Tinto, Barbara Leigh Smith and Jean MacGregor. Pennsylvania State University: National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment.
This paper outlines the theory of collaborative learning (face-to-face or technological).

Baker , M., Quignard, M., Lund, K. & Sejourne A. (2003). Computer-supported collaborative learning in the space of debate. In B.Wasson, S. Ludvigsen and U. Hoppe (eds): CSCL: Designing for Change in Networked Learning Environments, CSCL 2003 congress: 14-18 June 2003, Bergen, Norway, pp.11-20
This paper is about designing collaborative learning spaces.  It explains that giving more feedback (for example, dialogue graphs which visually show the user how much they participate) increases the number of arguments a participant contributes.

Hope these are helpful!

Bulgaria sees the value in tech growth

I’ve recently returned from a trip to Bulgaria and was struck by a country in economic and technological transition. The apartment blocks and factories, remnants of an industrial Communist era now past, clashed sharply with the modest stone-and-wood houses built by occupants who might herd goats or raise roosters in the garden. Overlaid atop this architectural tug-of-war across the countryside (no doubt simmering since the Soviet Army invaded in 1944) are signs of technological infrastructure and Western prosperity.

The billboards at Sofia airport for Hewlett-Packard and our other favourite technology companies were my first evidence that the country is growing both with through technology tools and with the innovation funds that their creator companies bring. The technology sector already accounts for 10% of Bulgaria’s GDP and the country is proud of it.

“There is no doubt the ‘old’ EU member states, for all their experience, could learn from what we have been doing in Bulgaria in terms of economic growth and competitiveness,” said Sergei Stanishev, Bulgarian prime minister, last week. Stanishev spoke in a pre-Spring EU summit in Brussels.

Stanishev’s pride wasn’t just talk — I was particularly impressed with the Bansko ski resort, boasting new Doppelmayr ski lifts and the RFID-based Skidata passes that allowed us skiers through a turnstile and straight onto the lift. Far more efficient than checking paper passes by hand! Bansko seems to have been planned out with technology and efficiency in mind. gondola at Bansko in the snow

Stanishev did admit that intellectual property protections (among other things) remain a challenge for Bulgaria to become a competitor in the world technology market. Yesterday, Bulgaria’s EU Commissioner Meglena Kuneva made effort towards laying down IP policy for the country. Weighing in on the international iTunes music debate in her capacity as European Commissioner for Consumers, Kuneva said, “[I do not find it] proper that a music CD can be played on all trademarks of players, but the music sold in iTunes can be played only on an iPod.” Taking this leadership role for the EU in such a high-stakes IP struggle could be significant for Bulgaria. Watch this space.

It appears that this beautiful country, which joined the EU at the beginning of this year, has every intention of becoming a major player in the tech economy. Today’s news announces that they have just been slated to receive €7 billion in EU funding over the next 7 years — I’m quite keen to see what they accomplish with it.

The spam of my blog

Because it’s a Friday, and because this has made me laugh through the week, I’d like to share with you a bit about my blog’s spam.

Quick background: let me help you boost your search ranking

Google ranks web pages based on a formula which includes their popularity (measured by how many other pages have links that point to it — see the classic Google paper Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Search Engine for more details). Consequently, the more pages out there refer to yours, the better your chances are of ending up near the top of the Google Results list when someone does a search. If you’re out to artificially inflate that ranking, planting links to your site around the web will boost your ratings. The higher your ranking, the more users will notice you, the more traffic you will get, and the more advertising revenue or potential sales you’ll land by getting them (figuratively) through the door.

And where to plant links to your site? Blog comments! Most blogging software will let you post more or less what you like, in HTML, on endless pages within the millions of blogs out there. (Note: at press time, Technorati is currently tracking 69.2 million blogs. And they haven’t got the whole blogosphere. The field is vast.)

We do have anti-spam software that filters spam comments, for example by the number of links a post contains. We blog-holders are not captive to the wills of blog spammers. But my spam filter, Akismet, kindly holds the spam comments it detects for my review. It is from this week’s list of Akismet spam from my blog that I pull the following trends.

Spam for my blog!

This past week, I’ve kept a particular eye on my blog’s spam. Since I delete them and you never get to see how funny they are, I thought I’d pull up a few to share with you.

Because they’re just out to get their links up on my site, the spammers have to convince me to post (or not delete) their comment. Each spam post begins with a little commentary around the links they are promoting, a feeble effort to catch my attention or fool me into thinking it’s a legitimate comment. These are what amuse me, and what I want to show to you.

  • A number of them are complimentary to my site or a particular post.

Hi! Guys how you manage to make such perfect sites? Good fellows!
(This was for debt consolidation services. I like the idea of being called “fellows”. Apt for a lone female running the site.)

With posts like this how long before we give up the newspaper?!!
(This was a site just trying to generate traffic. But I like that they’re referencing the whole Web 2.0-threatens-mainstream-media debate.)

This is a cool site! Thanks and wish you better luck!
(This was a comment selling replica handbags. It was posted on my Privacy Legislation and Teenagers post. It’s nice of them to, er, extend their sympathies… but I didn’t find that article so difficult to write! I imagine this was written with a more emotional blog in mind.)

That was a very nice post, I’m proud of you.
(Now that’s sweet. It recurs regularly, and even though I’m not interested in the loans and refinancing it offers, the comment always makes me feel good about the hard work I put into my blog.)

  • Some are just unrelated to the links. I got this romantic text under the subject heading of Cheap Shopping:

Lorsque la main d’un homme effleure la main d’une femme, tous deux touchent a l’éternité.
(Rough translation: “As the man’s hand brushes the woman’s, both of them touch eternity.” It may actually be syrupy enough to warrant the painkillers they were touting.)

Another tries to play the sympathy card:

My life’s been generally bland. I’ve just been letting everything happen without me. I don’t care. I’ve just been sitting around doing nothing, but eh.
(This came with a gmail address, and just to be sure I sent them an email asking if everything was okay. Hey, I’m a nice person! Not surprisingly, the message bounced. I then discovered that the link URL was a pointer which resolved to a site selling Viagra.)

  • I got one yesterday that was actually honest. No preamble, just a long list of links titled Greats from me: . I still didn’t post it, and I don’t need the sleep aids that were listed below, but I do appreciate the forthright approach.
  • For sheer creativity, as well as honesty in marketing, my current favourite is this one:

Hello.
If your site getting constantly spammed, then you are in urgent need of a new folding table
Check these: folding poker tables
Sincerely yours,
folding tables seller

That did catch my attention. I had to laugh. A salesman who knows their market! I’m impressed that they thought about what drives me as a consumer. It’s too bad that I can’t see how a folding table would solve my spam issues, but if they want to come back and leave a comment about it, I will be happy to approve it for posting.

a folding tab le

Information security for the UK: making everyone happy?

The Cabinet Office has released their e-Government framework for Information Assurance for draft consultation. The document sets forth guidelines for implementing the transformational government agenda of delivering more effective, more efficient customer-centric public services. These guidelines are intended to inform all transactions (and their supporting infrastructures) between UK government and its citizens.

The document has an interesting list of relevant legislation under appendix B, ‘Related Policy and Guidance’ (cited below).

The principal pieces of legislation that are likely to inform the IA requirements for e-Government service implementations include and are not limited to [links are added]:

  • the Human Rights Act and the underlying European Convention on Human Rights set out everyone’s right to privacy in their correspondence;
  • the Data Protection Act sets requirements for the proper handling and protection of personal information held within information processing systems;
  • the Electronic Communications Act sets the requirements for electronic signatures and their equivalence to conventional signatures;
  • the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act makes it an offence to intercept communication on any public or private network; case and time limited exemptions may be granted subject to warrant;
  • the Terrorism Act makes it an offence to take actions which are designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system;
  • the Wireless Telegraphy Act controls the monitoring of wireless telegraphy;
  • the Police and Criminal Evidence Act defines conditions under which law enforcement may obtain and use evidence;
  • the Computer Misuse Act makes attempted of actual penetration or subversion of computer systems a criminal act; the Public Records Act lays down requirements for the proper care and preservation of documentary records of government activities;
  • the Official Secrets Act lays down requirements for the proper control of government information;
  • the Freedom of Information Act lays down the citizen’s rights of access to government held information.

I’m posting this list because it illustrates what a balancing act information policy is. On the one hand, we fight to preserve open paths of communication to our legislators and civil servants; we encourage all individuals to be involved in their government; we promote citizenship and interaction through digital inclusion of those who might otherwise be marginalised. Similarly, we have charged the same government with protecting us and our communities; we want them to have full access to the ‘bad guys’ and to anticipate — even pre-empt — any threat to us. From those arguments, we should open everything to everyone!

On the other hand, we have agreed that our human rights grant us the freedom to our own confidentiality. We have also agreed, through our democracy, that the government should have some leeway in keeping information from us (particularly about each other) to deliver effective public services to us and our neighbours and to protect us from the bad guys.
687585_padlock-thumbnail
Both of these bits of secrecy mean that each party wants to maintain a certain level of control over allowing access into our conversations.

It’s a lot to juggle.

[Consultation on the e-Government framework for Information Assurance runs until 13th March 2007.]

Saying it BIG

When billboards, radio jingles and online banner ads aren’t enough to make a statement about your product…

Gulfstream Aerospace sent their Gulfstream V plane on a skywriting expedition yesterday, leaving the initials ‘GV’ traced over Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin. FlightAware (which tracks flight progress from FAA data) has a map of the journey here.

Similarly, Swift City travel company in Sydney organised a giant eye advertisement in a local park last week to be picked up by aerial photographers from Google Earth and Microsoft. They used 2,500 sheets of A4 paper, pinned into the ground to make their statement. See here for their pictures.

Slashdot, who carried both these stories, used the descriptor ‘spam’ for planting ads into Google maps. And some of its readers expressed disgust with the environmental consequences of flying a plane across 11 states for the sole purpose of ‘leaving their mark on the net’. I’m clearly amused enough with these companies’ efforts to pass on the stories, but I’m not convince that either of these events will come back to bite their sponsors.

At the moment, it appears that only Digg and Slashdot have picked up the Gulfstream story. And though Google hasn’t released its new pictures of Sydney yet, I’ll be amazed if the Swift City efforts result in anything more than a self-congratulatory news item on their own website. But am I wrong? Does the information distribution power of the Internet mean that that bigger-better-faster is now on a whole new scale?

Privacy legislation and teenagers: Leave me and my Facebook alone!

Developing an adolescent network of friends

Being a teenager, for me, was largely a trial-and-error process of figuring out how to be an adult. I wanted autonomy, I wanted to succeed, and I wanted to be able to ask for help — but only on my terms. I created a “family” of friends, relying on them for the moral support and frames of reference that I had previously looked to my relatives for. We muddled our way through adolescence, as I imagine most teens do, trying to work out together how to handle our uncertain futures, new relationships and the stress of achieving good grades. We learned together.

Underneath that bonding and grouping, I distinctly remember not just drifting from my family but actively setting up blocks. “I want to do this my way, by myself!” was a big mantra of those years. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in the 1890s that the US Constitution guarantees “the right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men”. I was pretty positive Brandeis was writing right to me; as a (self-declared) civilised almost-adult, I thought that right was sacrosanct. I wanted to be let alone with my friends.

Social Networking – the online models of our groups of friends

607145_feet_of_friends-thumbnailSocial networking platforms like Facebook, Myspace and Bebo allow teenagers to intensify their relationships with members of their group. In creating a profile or home page, they can create and re-create their own identities, experimenting with who they are and how they want to be seen. They get to identify themselves with social groups, be seen as belonging (through displaying their friends) and discover who else belongs with whom. And best of all — the parents aren’t invited. This is a world of their own, ideally suited to the adolescent’s social development.

The tension: Protecting the kids or invading their privacy?

If we can extrapolate my experience to a majority of Internet-using teenagers, social networking sites are supporting them in the social development they’re already doing. The challenge comes in building new relationships, where the lack of context can make it easy for someone with a nefarious agenda to mislead the unsuspecting. (See previous post.) The quick intimacy teenagers build can mask the fact that they don’t actually know who is on the other end of the conversation.

Recent US legislation has attempted to minimise the risks to kids. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA) prohibits site operators from collecting personal data from kids under 13 without verifiable parental consent, and removes their liability for disclosing information to the parent about the child. In a previous post, I have discussed the proposed Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006, and this week the Georgia Senate has begun to consider a bill that would raise the age of parental consent to 18. No minors in Georgia would be allowed to engage in social networks without their parents having full access.

At the same time, the chief privacy officer for Facebook, Chris Kelly, maintains that they are restricted from sharing activity and profile content with parents by federal law. “Under the Federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act, we cannot give anyone access to or control of an individual’s profile on Facebook”, Kelly said. In addition to the overhead if they were required to open up all that data and verify which parent belongs to which kid, the inevitable response would be diminished site activity. If kids knew that Mom and Dad could listen in, they would find somewhere else to talk.

(Facebook of course has an interest in keeping activity levels high and therefore maintaining its revenue stream, which appears to be advertising-based. But it would fall short of its goal of “helping people better understand the world around them” if everyone restrained their contributions to each other’s world views because they felt they were being spied on.)

How do we sort this out?

256781_biking_-_shadows-thumbnailIf we go back to my assertion that social networking is modelling interactions and social development that we all do anyway, then the dangers aren’t actually that new. As an offline teenager, I was certainly taught not to give my address to anyone I didn’t know, and not to talk to strangers. I knew to look both ways before crossing the street. I knew how to listen for conversational cues that I was talking to someone with bad motives, and to recognise that friends of friends aren’t necessarily okay just because they come with a “reference” from somebody I know. All these messages kept me safe in the big bad real world, and I knew them because I was taught.

Teenagers need to form groups, to share information and to grow with their friends. And to establish a bit of independence from their families. Social networking can support this growth, but someone needs to make sure that online safety is included with the “surviving in the real world” lessons every kid gets either at home or at school. Particularly because parents are less involved in the conversation than they were when the children were younger, teenagers must be well prepared to make good decisions on their own. Unfortunately, legislation restricting access or allowing parents to “eavesdrop” won’t teach good judgment. Nor will applying privacy legislation — many kids wouldn’t figure this out on their own. Parents, teachers and role models are still ultimately responsible for these almost-adults, and it should be up to these adults to prepare them properly.

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