Policy and technology: a "longue durée" view

Random thoughts on policy for technology and on technology for policy


May 2009

List of differences between government and web2 initiatives

I am drafting the report of the eups20 workshop. I would like to ask for your help.
First, I started drafting a list of differences which try to outline the gap between government and web2 initiatives. It’s just an initial list (I could post it only as a jpeg, sorry, original is here)


What do you think?

Also, for drafting the report, it would be great if you could add interesting quotes from the workhop in this file . Maybe you can get an inspiration from the videos here.

Many thanks!

How I learned to forget what I learnt

These recent years of web 2.0 folly taught me to forget some fundamental values I was given when I was a kid.

Dont just say you like it, say why you like it. In primary school, I was taught that simply saying “mi piace” was superficial. I had to think and explain why I liked or disliked something. Only then I would say something meaningful. NOW: through twitter and amazon, I just say things I like, and I suddenly discover super-interesting things and connections with people sharing the same taste. This is how I came across the most interesting people I know, and how I discover interesting thing simply because these interesting people say “I like this”. Only afterwards, ex-post, I try to recognize a pattern, which drives me then to a discovery of myself. This is much richer and more efficient than trying to rationalize ex-ante why I like something.
Don’t copy. Ok this is basic, everybody had this lesson. Yet NOW I find that copying is a normal thing to do, the important thing is choosing the right thing to copy, in your context. For example INCA is copied from appsfordemocracy, but I recognized this fitted perfectly with my new customer needs. And it is interesting that Peter Corbett of Appsfordemocracy and Chris Smissaerts of the NL had a positive attitude to the issue of copying.
– Think a lot before doing something and do it only if you are fully convinced you will pursue it until the end. Many people tell me they would like to open the blog but then are worried not being able to write regularly. So they prefer to wait and only start if they’re sure they are going to do it seriously. Well it doesn’t work that way NOW. You cannot anticipate your behaviour and people’s reaction. You have to give it a try (it’s free and you dont risk anything) and then see if it works. Most likely it will not work but who cares? Only in this way you will discover really interesting and unexpected things.

I see something common in these points, I think they point to a common pattern which I don’t recognize yet. One is certainly the issue of unpredictability, or the (new) trial and error approach versus the (old) ex-ante planning approach. Another one is the issue of economy of abundance related to electronic data, where scarcity is no longer a problem and selection is done ex post. But there is something more, a more clear and systematic pattern that escapes me.

UPDATE: apparently I also forgot how to spell the past tense of “to learn” 🙂

is govt 2.0 only for UK and US? INCA says NO

When talking about web 2.0 for government, most of the example I bring are from UK and US. So the question often come: can web 2 work in the rest of Europe? Is it a spontaneous bottom-up phenomenon, or can it be cultivated?

I can say YES, you can cultivate a government 2.0 approach also in countries where there is not a consolidated spontaneous movement.

I have the chance to have an innovative client as IBBT , which enthusiastically launched the INCA awards, on the blueprint of the appsfordemocracy contest. We were worried though: we chose to have many prizes, 10, and we were not sure we would have enough applications.

How wrong were we. The INCA award received 35 working, brand new applications to solve collective problems. They range from social babysitting to traffic management to culture to environment. Developers were enthusiastic about the idea, and the winners told me how they loved the process even more that the prize in itself. Lots of energy was created and I would like to THANK all proposers.

This shows Flanders is full of creative and socially sensitive people. Congrats.

I believe INCA can be an important milestone in the EU policy debate, in different senses.

For research policy, INCA was original in the sense that is used a prize-based competition, which have the following advantages:
–    rewarding the actual results rather than the beautifully written proposal.
–    Applications were developed on purpose, not already existing. This created excitement and inspiration because of feeling of synchronicity
–    It was open to any idea, rather than rigidly predicting the needs. It’s user-led innovation in its extreme form
–    It was able to reach out to a totally new audience, not traditionally engaged in research projects, showing the open and serendipitous nature of innovation.

For ICT policy, INCA clearly demonstrated ICT applications play an important role for solving the everyday life of citizens. INCA applications are not about fancy technology, but solving real everyday problems and create “social capital”, and they are directly produced by networked citizens.
INCA showed that “public services 2.0” is not only for the US/UK and it can be proactively stimulated also in continental Europe by suitable policies.

The ROI of INCA is quite unbelievable. With a prize of 20K Euros it generated 35 useful applications in one month. Compare this with traditional e-government project, and today’s paradox is clear.

More importantly, the INCA served as inspiration for developers to work for solving social problems, rather than going for commercial applications. It is an example of a policy that made a difference, as it generated a positive feedback loop and a learning mechanism. It also shows to politicians what citizens are capable of.

Unfortunately the jury had to select some winners, and therefore most submissions did not receive all the recognition they deserve. For this reason, I will blog in the next posts about my favorite applications between the non-winners, as I feel there were really interesting projects there as well.


A taxonomy of web2.0 skills

E-skills are becoming a much more important policy topic. You can easily see how people who can code are now in a stronger position to influence public policy. You’re fed up with crime you create chicagocrime, now You hate people who park on the bike lane, you create mybikelane. You care about urban planning you create planningalerts. You don’t need money, just coding skills, and your influencing power increases dramatically.

Alorza has developed a training course and an interesting codification of web2 skills for civil servant. For me, a taxonomy starts to emerge:

Old IT competences: European Computer Driving License. Windows , Office and Explorer.

New competences (at increasing level of sophistication):
1- digital literacy: capacity to read and understand text and audiovisual content. This is fundamental for citizens to take full advantage of the web, as it becomes more and more important to distinguish between trustable and not trustable content. These are mostly non-technological skills.
2- media literacy: capacity to produce content and services based on freely available applications, such as blog, wiki, social network, and all free software which does NOT require installation. Here you take full advantage of free ad-supported software. You can publish content and create services using flickr, youtube,, surveymonkey, ning, uservoice;
3- “running a server” skills: capacity to install software on a server and customize it. Here you take full advantage of open source software. You can manage and install wordpress and ideatorrent. Most importantly, once you run these services, you free yourself from the “generosity” of ad-sponsored platforms. You own the data and are free to re-use it, while this is not the case with web-based software such as ning, facebook etc.
4- coding skills: you can write code, and conceive and develop cool applications (“stuff that matters”). You can create change just using your skills, with very little investment. You can reuse public data to show misbehaviours you care about. Jose Alonso of W3C put it neatly in his presentation at the workshop on public services 2.0: “It took me 15 minutes and 20 lines of code to get the info of Spanish congress representatives from 15 HTML pages into XML, and I’m not a good programmer”.

I am level 2. For example, I need an idea-storm software, but can only use as I have no server and would be unable to install ideatorrent on it, even if I had it. I depend on freely available software, and have no control on my data. I cannot create cool applications to mobilize and reach out. The bad news is, I don’t even know how and if I could learn some basic installing and coding skills. Plus I dont have easy access to developers around me with whom to exchange views.

So, I believe any public body should have these competences in-house. I.T. is back as a strategic tool, not a commodity. And with free web-based and open source software available, the added value of having internal competence is huge. A department with no IT budget and one developer can easily outstrip another with 1M IT budget outsourced and no in-house developers.

Or maybe, should every individual have this competences? Should we teach basic programming skills to everyone, at least at the level identified by Jose Alonso?

An alternative approach is the social innovation camp, which brings together developers with ideas, so that you can build “cool and useful” solutions even if you can’t develop.

In any case, the lack of adequate skills is becoming an increasing problem and the impact of the divide is widening. This calls for policy action.

PS: Jeannette Wing spoke at FET09 about the need to disseminate computational thinking, which is yet
another perspective: the capacity to understand how computer works and what you can do with them. I highly recommend the related interview by Jon Udell on the topic

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