[from the archive] The Internet of Public Service

Talk at Revolution Conference, Shrewsbury, September 2015

Now it is clear that the ‘Internet of Things’ is the latest ‘next big thing’ — Gartner, those bastions of forward thinking, are suggesting that 25 billion ‘things’ will be connected to the internet by 2020. http://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/2905717 — another study says 90% of cars will be internet connected by the same year. I look forward to cars breaking down due to dropped connections — makes me happy I can’t drive.

Here is the thing though — I don’t care. Wearing a watch so I can tell who has DM’d me without going to the massive effort of looking at my phone? A fridge that can tell me when I have run out of milk? A car that can drive itself (OK maybe that one would be good sometimes given my driving!) The way that movie Wall-E portrayed people was not supposed to be aspirational!

Here is what I care about — this is still what interests me…this..

Plus this…

= this. The Internet of Screens….if I thought we were done with this then maybe I could rustle up some enthusiasm for the Internet of Things. Sometimes I think our entire industry (if that is even the right word) has collective ‘attention deficit disorder’ always looking for something new, something different — ooohhhh shiny — rather than just buckling down and delivering on the promise of what we have in front of us.

I think when I originally wrote these slides I was perhaps suffering from some delusions of grandeur…I’ve been reading a LOT about politics in recent weeks and clearly it had some kind of subliminal effect. Anyway while manifesto is a bit over the top this presentation does seek to set out MY motives and views about a topic I have become increasingly passionate about these last several months..

This idea of an Internet of Public Service — first articulated by Adrian Hon, founder of Six to Start who make Zombies, Run!, in a blogpost last year but supported by others like Anil Dash, who founded Movable Type one of the earliest blogging platforms, who wrote an amazing piece called ‘The Web We Lost‘ and more recently an article from @hod3r (I can’t pronounce his name embarrassingly) who spent 6 years in an Iranian jail for blogging about the ‘Web We Have to Save…‘ — → We live in a post-Snowden world, where there is a more and more concentration of power in a small number of internet giants, where any notion of civility seems to have vanished from online communications and where misogyny runs wild. On the other hand open source has never been more influential, there are real efforts to make Government services user focused and digital first in the UK, US, Australia and further afield, there are signs that …[something else] There is a glimmer of hope and we must build on that..

So my hope today is to convince at least a couple of you that I am not crazy and this is an idea worthy of further investigation at least — I don’t have any answers but hopefully the rest of this talk might provide some clues as to where they might reside.

On average we spend more online per person in the UK than anywhere else in the world. Also more than 50% of adults with bank accounts use online banking — again more than anywhere.

I’m a little bit dubious about the methodology behind the Ofcom stats but they are widely referenced and suit the narrative..

I’m guessing there are more than a couple of Facebook refuseniks in the room — or at least people with grave concerns about their privacy policies and behaviour…you (we) are the outliers.

This is huge and a massive counterpoint to those earlier statistics. 11% NEVER used the internet.

..and when 76% of people have social media profiles on 18% have ever used the internet to find out about public services available to them.

…and even fewer have ever gone online to participate in their democratic rights!

Trolls — not a strong enough term for what is now covered. Trolls were just online wind up merchants not the devils spawn they have become.

First a confession — I fiddled this top 10 a bit as Google was 1 and 2! .com and .co.uk which meant Wikipedia fell 11 which wasn’t too helpful for the talk. This top 10 though still begs some questions…who hell still uses Yahoo? Anyone? How is Live.com hanging on — all those Hotmail accounts still? Also apparently The Lad Bible is the 12th most visited site in the UK so far this year — more than the Daily Mail, Rightmove or Reddit!

Anyway to meander back to the point of this talk (honestly there is a thread somewhere) of this slightly fiddled top 10 only really the BBC and Wikipedia could be considered a part of any kind of ‘Internet of Public Service’ the rest of the time we are busy either handing over private data or hard earned cash.

..and this idea of ‘public service’ isn’t just something that was magic’d up — it is a well established concept — this is the Ofcom definition (yea them again) as regards to broadcasting — obviously the BBC are the most famous but Channel 4 and S4C have responsibilities here as well as things like PBS and NPR in the US (so all you fans of Strictly Come Dancing, Super Ted, Sesame Street and the Serial podcast are already consumers..)

It is all about the ‘public benefit’

Anyway to get back on topic — the charter is all about serving the public interest and clearly that is open to interpretation so they spell out what they mean with a number of principles — 3 of which I’m particularly interested in (and to be honest I’m not sure the public interest is that well served by the others!)

I think everyone would agree that the BBC has a role in education in this country — from the BBC Micro in the 80s through to BBC Bitesize to the new BBC Micro Bit that is due around Christmas — for those that don’t know this is a Raspberry-Pi like setup that is going to be given free to every Year 7 student in the UK! There is still more to do though — digital literacy still has a long way to go in both the young and old and while I applaud things like CodeClub and Young Rewired State (which Emma mentioned earlier and I encourage you all to learn more about and host if you can) I believe there is a digital world beyond coding and we need to do a better job educating across the whole spectrum of interests…the world has never been 100& makers..

..we have always had artists as well. I don’t subscribe to the every designer should code idea -every artist should understand the power of their medium but we have always had artists and artisans.

This one is of specific interest to me — trying to build an user focused interface into government is what I do — getting people to trust the tools (if not the Government behind them) is key to this and making them intuitive enough that they work first time for people is the challenge….but we also need people to be more interested to push harder, ask more, demand changes..

Back at the end of March Martha Lane-Fox, or Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho, gave this years Richard Dimbleby Lecture on BBC1. It was basically a call to action to create a new, British, internet institution to prevent us from falling behind in the digital world. One of the things I liked most in the way this was explained was this idea:

“the values of the internet have always been a dialogue between private companies and public bodies. And right now the civic, public, non-commercial side of the equation needs a boost. It needs more weight. We’ve been going too slow, being too incremental — in skills, in infrastructure, in public services. We need to be bolder.”

The institution is called dotEveryone and it has 3 aims — Firstly, how do we improve our understanding of the internet at all levels of our society? Secondly, how do we get more women involved in technology? Thirdly, how do we tackle the genuinely new and thorny ethical and moral issues the internet has created? If anything I say today inspires you to consider getting involved in something different this could be a good place to start — there is a LOT to do..

Now you may be asking where does open source fit in to all this nonsense this Ian Holloway wannabe is spouting (little footy reference). I love open source software — I advocate its use day in day out at my day job and have done for years.

I also love Github — it is a brilliant community and discovery tool as well as illuminating some of the darker corners of Git for those of us uncomfortable in Terminal. It has made it easier and easier to contribute to existing open source projects and thanks to the license picker tool it built it also makes it incredibly easy to open source your own projects. Unfortunately — and this is very much just my opinion — this is the problem. More than 5 million estimated openly licensed software projects on Github…

..rather waters down Linus’s Law…..the great power of open source was this. The communities that grew around the projects — the collaborative decision making — the many eyes. If everybody decides that rather than contribute to an existing project they will create their own than the entire movement becomes fractured and once again the power gravitates to the ‘open’ projects supported by the Internet Giants. I mean just how many Javascript frameworks do we need — someone has probably created a new one in this room while I have been speaking!

Organisations like Mozilla, Apache, Linux, OpenStreetMap — they get it — I’m not saying they are perfect — they all have issues and flaws (and Mozilla have certainly stumbled a bit in recent years) but they understand they are a part of something bigger — that they have a responsibility to the INTERNET — they need to be a part of making things better not just making shareholders richer.

I love Wikipedia — I love its origin story and Jimmy Wales trying to obscure the fact it was originally all paid for with the profits from a porn search engine — and I love its mission. I mean the community is the most pedantic set of humans in history but I appreciate the passion. The amazing thing about Wikipedia that we all take for granted is that it is a WIKI — want to improve it? Get involved. Something annoying you? Get involved.

A really long time ago I did a degree in Medieval History and Archaeology so there is a special place in my heart for the Internet Archive — or as they are more commonly referred to ‘The Way Back Machine’…..their mission to create an archive of the web for everyone becomes more and more relevant as the half life for websites, apps etc gets shorter and shorter…that is our legacy! All those Geocities sites about pets and those MySpace backgrounds? That is the archaeology of the future. God help us.

Now I’m not against the frivolous — I am just concerned that there is fast becoming a point where the frivolous will totally overwhelm the serious on the web (if it hasn’t already happened) There needs to be a balance — it goes back to that ‘dialogue’ that Martha spoke about in her lecture. I’m as willing as anyone to take part in a Buzzfeed quid — I can tell you what superhero, Game of Thrones character or whether I am a Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte or Samatha (I’m a Miranda). I love a good listicle. But I also still want the web to fulfil the kind of principles that are spelt out in the BBC charter — education, creativity, civic responsibility. I want people to use the web to learn how to contribute to the democratic process in creative ways!

Now I’m going to assume few if any of you have heard of Mikey Dickerson? He was a Google Engineer who volunteered to help when Healthcare.gov the biggest Federal digital project in the US, a cornerstone of Obamas presidency, launched to complete and utter failure. He and a small team of other Silicon Valley volunteers worked tirelessly for a couple of months to rescue the site that was offering universal healthcare in the US for the first time — they managed to succeed. Now a year later 18 million Americans have been able to sign up for health insurance for the first time. Rather than return to Google (where he was pretty senior) he accepted an offer to move to DC and lead the fledgling United States Digital Service (patterned after our own GDS). They have instituted a real focus on recruiting the best and brightest — often offering relatively short contracts and big internet companies are supporting the movement. It is a model that I think has been interesting to watch.

Here is my worry — I fear as a community whenever we try to make positive change we immediately leap to this. I don’t think it is ever the aim but it so often becomes the outcome..

..when this should be the goal. If we are going to make real change we need to bring everybody along with us — not just the Macbook using, coffee shop dwelling, iWatch wearing digerati

..like Tim said..

Another challenge we have and so often fail at (as all of you are probably experiencing right now!) is that we fail to communicate in a way that is comprehensible by anybody not from our background. I read a great post from a guy called Giles ? recently about using the language people use rather than cloaking everything in jargon in search of a precision nobody else is looking for..in science they have an entire related field of science communicators just to try and address their own tendencies in this area — if we want to make change we need people to understand what we are talking about.

As an example — I love the Redecentralize movement — I believe it has worthy goals, has some brilliant people involved and is producing some great projects but my god it is difficult to explain to people..

Now while I may be a crazy lefty I am not expecting that the web to become some virtual socialist paradise — the web is the heartland of capitalism and that is fine.

The beauty of this idea is that while it is about public benefit it does not exclude the idea of making money

It just suggests that profit alone should not be the goal. This is really not that radical an idea.

Anybody who has ever been to the US (particularly San Francisco) will have come across Whole Foods — their founder preaches a concept called ‘conscious capitalism’…

How do you pronounce — Pierre Omidyar — I really should only quote people when I know their names properly.

When I started writing this talk at the weekend (a bit last minute I know) I saw on Twitter that Kickstarter had reincorporated as a ‘public benefit corporation’ which if I’d know before that I could have done more to integrate that idea in to this talk! It is a lovely idea and the fact an internet company of the scale of Kickstarter shows that building a business and wanting to remain a part of the ‘Internet of Public Service’ are not mutually exclusive.

Anyway I think Gavin Belson, legendary founder of Hooli, said it best

%d bloggers like this: