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 everyblock.com. 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, wordpress.com, 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 uservoice.com 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