Monday, 6 July 2009

Activate09 - wow - some musings

Thought it best to digest the day and reflect on what was almost (sorry Adam, that was the second time I've watched you read a prepared script, off the cuff humour not withstanding, iti all felt sooo 'qualified') without exception a staggering succession of speakers with topics and ideas to match.

Others have already done an excellent job in 'reporting' (for example, so will confine myself to stuff close to my heart, personal and professional.

The stand out piece for many would have been Gerry Jackson's harrowing account of broadcasting under repressive, hostile and down-right life-threatening circumstances in Zimbabwe. Having been caught up in two mostly unreported civil wars (I am lead to believe that one of them had one paragraph in The Times once) before the rise of the digital age (there was short wave radio and one telex machine in Hargeisa!) when reporting such things required genuine 'Salvador' type commitment to want to go, get in, get a story and then get out again, Gerry served up compelling, brutal, ugly, essential reasons why and how the convergence of 'genuine' journalism, crowd sourced messages and media, social networks and information systems present such a threat to political systems, good and not so good, and why we should support and enable them.

Hot on the heels of John Simpson's throw away line about how few journalists there were in Tehran (all the 'serious' ones were leaving and 'the crowd' still seems to have to earn its place in some areas of the media) it reminded us that however liberating the tools and technologies that we usually take for granted can be, it ultimately takes a combination of nerves, cojones of steel and that very familiarity that we take for granted to apply them.

Ironic too because of Obama's intervention to ensure Twitter access for Iranians while Google is busy trying to get services accepted in China and the level of intervention or 'web filtering" governments and their agencies already make to 'secure' us from digital threat - Green Dam is only the most visible.

Apposite then that indirectly many of the key speeches of the day were about education and the challenges faced in defining and bringing that education to those most in need, both formally and, where community, social networks, the cloud and the crowd collide, informally. The capture, sharing and dissemination of information and knowledge whether by peers round a 'hole in the wall' PC, through retirement age blogging (great presentation by Will Perrin), taking advantage of open education initiatives or through the ability to mashup data from official sources (I think there was only one mention of metadata on the day) provides both armour and weaponry for the citizen in equipping us to enjoin governments and international agencies to better reflect our will.

Of course, 'followtics' is a blind alley and we should expect our leaders to, well, lead. Some of the red top headliners are no more than a sop to the hang 'em high lobby but are doubtless monitored by the masters of spin for their own ends. If you build it, they will come and may we reap the whirlwind. While it could be argued that even others, such as FixMyStreet afford 'digital natives' greater 'volume' in the already noisy political lobby, the way in which the agency responsible acts in response reflects a more rational and tangible democracy. On this note, and slightly off topic, there is a corner on a hill near us where I have seen a contractor literally lobbing spadefuls of wet tarmac into a hole and letting the traffic flatten it, before driving off to the next one. One shower of rain and the hole is back, followed by the contractor - if they're being paid for holes fixed they must love it; if the council awarded a fixed price contract to the lowest bidder no one wins. Given that unsurprisingly government regards such contracts as commercially sensitive (e.g. the whole £25k expenditure transparency spin is moot. More to the point it reminds me of unmetalled roads across much of Africa where the local young men and boys are often to be seen with basic tools filling holes in the tracks near their willages and asking passing drivers for a shilling for their efforts. Only difference is that what you give at the 'go slow' goes straight to them.

If I have one constructive comment to offer, with Chris Anderson's new book 'Free' launching this week, it is a pity that so little was given over to the economics of this envisaged digital universe. However you look at it, the world of volunteering (essentially it is about time given, whether that spent distributing food or writing and distributing open source code) is finite, dependent on the largesse of citizens, HNWIs, corporations and even government (through the regimes and incentives they offer). Ultimately we all have to eat and no one is suggesting bartering - LETS were all the rage a few years back - or that a model can be created whereby advertising pays for everything.

In fact, the throw away line of the day from Bradley Horowitz, VP Google Apps, juxtaposed a world in which, if we accept ads at all they have to be exactly what we want when we want with that of a world hostile to anyone knowing any more than we want it to know. The world is hostile enough to Phorm already but the ad platforms want deep citizen knowledge to target high value ads while the citizen wants to take back ownership of 'their' data - what, the ad model doomed or preparing us for more paid for Google Apps? In a world where marginal cost of (re)production of digital products is (very) close to zero, an examination in one of the plenary sessions of emerging and tomorrow's business models would have been welcome. Andy Baio and others touched on key areas such as usability with respect to customer retention and customers are willing to pay for 'whole product' services but there didn't seem to be an undercurrent saying that future digital economics were a 'given'. I look forward to the Activator events where doubtless such things will be taken up with gusto.

Hopefully at those events a proactive approach to delegates will ensure inclusion (if not attendance) of key individuals from the sectors seemingly absent last week - the procurers and deliverers of what are suppposed to be citizen centric services. Civil servants paralysed by indecision, inertia and buck passing need to be involved, as do the commercial entities at the heart of current service provision. The latter not because they are entitled to anything from a paradigmatic shift in delivery model but because we as citizens are entitled to challenge, educate and inform to speed the shift and because whoever is in power the PPP/PFI model at the heart of much existing provision is unlikely to be thrown out or dramatically reshaped. New models require new partnerships and perhaps the Activate banner will become that under which such teams are forged.

In the meantime all credit to the Guardian team that thought this up, put it together and underpinned it with a top class delivery team. Roll on........

ps for those awaiting a 'data' review, may blog separately as time allows

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