It’s About the End User, Stupid! … No! Not that one! The TICTeC blog

TICTeC is great.  The world is better for having TICTeC in it.  It provokes delight, wonder and thoughts.  This blog is mostly about the thoughts!

TICTeC is The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference and the third one was held last week (25-26 April, in Florence).  It is funded thanks to sponsorship from Google and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (“always acknowledge the sponsors”) and is organised by mySociety.

[Declaration of interest time, I am on the board of mySociety and Chair their commercial company; that said these are my personal observations and whilst they may influence, they are not statements of, our overall policy].

This blog doesn’t scratch the surface – further reading is at the links above or in this hackfoldr and via the #tictec hashtag.

This was the first one I have attended, and much of my observation takes place through the lens of the most similar things to this that I have attended previously in the digital/civic/democracy space, such as #notwestminster, #localgovcamp and #ukgc.  I reflect on that a bit at the end.

Delight

The unbearable delightness of the Localism Act (2011)

There were some terrific sessions. I particularly liked a couple from the Digital Civics crew at Newcastle University which centred on a topic close to my heart, neighbourhood planning, and using internet-era tools to support the community engagement that is so critical to their success.  I liked @jenhmanuel’s use of participatory video to stimulate a different kind of dialogue about how people felt about their place, and @IJohnson5555’s game for localism in which participants sit around a map and move video-identifiable markers around that map in response to randomly drawn cards with prompts such as “put the marker in a place where you don’t feel safe”, “put the marker in a place you used to live, but don’t now; why the change?”.  With both of these instances the tech was a means simply to facilitate a different, richer, face to face conversation than a standard “consultation meeting” would do.

Wonder

“My first action on becoming digital minister was to recompile the Linux kernel so that it would run docker”

It would be impossible to do any kind of blog about TICTeC without mentioning the exceptional tour-de-force that was Taiwanese Digital Minister @audreyt ’s plenary which combined Youtube, Webex and great use of Slido to transmit an immense amount of information about Taiwan’s Digital Government Programme.  There is really too much to hope to convey in this blog about user centred-ness at the heart of exceptionally open policy making.  Watch the Youtube video!  Dave McKenna has also blogged about the incredible Audrey.

Helping voting

There are many more delights and wonders waiting for those who follow any of the links above – we had an excellent session on Voting Advice Applications (which left me impressed but worried about how quickly they will become subverted as tools for propaganda and/or as mechanisms for laser-sharp identification of wedge issues), great sessions on work undertaken by Facebook and Google on Election advice applications, which also pointed up the different space for these two companies – a common interest in conveying information but different perspectives around search (Google) and social discussion (Facebook).  These need a lot of preparatory work, for example asking the parties to summarise their positions on key issues in their own words, and I rather suspect that snap elections are incompatible with the required lead time, so we won’t see that here, soon.

Ideology versus Evidence

Fake news and post-truth got a good airing, but a critical one – it was noted that attitudes to fake news might have been different had “we” not lost (Brexit, Trump), and the paternalism implicit in some of the fact checking methods was also acknowledged, though it didn’t stop me crowdfunding FullFact’s efforts for the coming general election.

I still don’t think we’re addressing the fact that ideology is in many key respects a much better basis for decision-making than using evidence!

Thoughts

Academics and the need for more of them

The ethos of TICTeC is about sharing research into, and evaluation of, civic technologies.  As such it was more academic than most conferences I go to.  I guess it is hopeless to ask academics to present their insights and conclusions first so that I can decide whether it is even relevant to be understanding their research methodology?  Thought so.

Nonetheless, it made me realise that we need more academics in local government.  As austerity pressures squeeze out scope for long-term innovation within councils themselves, and commercial pressures put similar screws on those outside who would like to help, it was great to see smart, committed people exploring the innovation that will come next.  In my day to day conversations in local government I often get people asking if I’ve read something in MJ or LGC, but no-one has yet said “hey did you see that thought-provoking paper in Local Government Studies, or Public Administration”.  Academics (they may be amused to learn) still have lots of money and time with which to experiment and local government needs to tap into this resource – and by doing so will inform and get higher impact study, to the benefit of all.

Making civic tech real for the true end user

Any person’s journey through a conference with many strands is quite individual and may not be representative of the whole, but a few emergent and in some instances inconvenient messages came through, for me.  A theme of a number of sessions I went to was that the impact of the particular instance of civic tech was (oops) hard to evidence.  It’s really cool that we are honest enough to discuss that, though.  In almost all cases, and in a very good talk by Amelia Loye (@emotivate), there was a dawning realisation that rather than starting with the tech possibility, or (better) starting with the citizen need, we need to think about how the civic tech will engage both the actual decision-makers, and the decision-making process.  Anything too expensive, or too slow isn’t going to cut it.  Providing great info to people who don’t know how to – or don’t have time to – use it is pointless.  We need to recognise that being user-centred in this context also means being centred on the bureaucracy and the elected people who are the true “end-users” of civic tech.  Let’s start with the decisions that need to be made and work back. The fact that Audrey Tang is in government as a minister and is therefore pragmatically able to centre all of the civic tech in the actual machinery of government is very telling. In that context it was disappointing that in all the 120 or so delegates there were no elected people (there was one who was due to go but didn’t show up, possibly a victim of a snap election) and I would have liked to see more practitioners there too.  Ironically, despite the conference itself being subsidised and flights to Florence being cheaper than train tickets to many UK places I suspect that the difficulty of justifying an international “jolly” will have kept away many UK public servants.

In praise of conferences

That said the internationalism was a joy – it made me realise how claustrophobic uk-based conferences (and unconferences) are by comparison.  Combined with a very positive experience of NotWestminster earlier this year I have come to realise that the energy and engagement that I find in unconferences (rather than more traditional conferences) comes from the people and the issues rather than the format.  It is possible to have exciting, energising conferences; and there’s a lot to be said for going to sessions with people who have really thought about that session, and given you some really clear information to decide whether to attend or not.  I may be falling out of love with unconferences a bit.

TICTec@Taipei

Lastly, TICTec is great – there’s even another one this year – at #CivicTechfest in Taiwan, though that might make impoverished UK public servants even weaker at the knees…

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