My friend Lorna Prescott (@dosticen on Twitter) says to start with the most enjoyable thing, the thing that you’re enjoying right now but I’m still stuck – sometimes this multi-tasking that women do means it’s hard to concentrate and get one thing done well i.e.to my own satisfaction.
The blog posts in my Drafts are:
- FutureShift Festival reflections
- When the public sector says “We haven’t got any money”
- Building a West Midlands Open Datastore
And another one that could develop into a series so I don’t even want to say what it is yet
I know I’m not the only person with a busy life, working in many different fields – it’s called a portfolio career after all – but if anyone has a solution to this dilemma that works for them, please share it with the rest of us!
This blog was inspired by a post (‘Steps on the road’) from Jo Ivens, CEO of Brighton & Hove Impetus who, in a previous role, worked on a project called Databridge, which aimed to empower the voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors to use Open Data
Hi Jo, Always good to read what you have to say so thanks for posting ‘Steps on the road’. In the post you say “Sad to say that not much seems to have changed [around the VCS and data/open data] in the last 3 years” but I feel a bit more hopeful.
Some of the reasons for this: I’ve been to my first CommsCamp (“unconference for communicators”) and first UKGovCamp (“for people interested in how the public sector does digital stuff”) in the last 12 months, and I led sessions at both on the public sector and voluntary sector working together.
I’m not saying the sessions were packed out, but some people from each sector came, and we communicated about commissioning, procurement, asset transfer and data, and I think that’s where some of the hope is – with the people from both sectors who are willing to build relationships and who have access to contacts, tools, data and information which we can share and make changes with. I’ve also attended my first BrewCamp and SocialCareCurry – again places where people from both sectors are meeting to talk and to listen, and hopefully, maybe sooner, maybe later, to collaborate to make the kind of changes we talk about.
Locally and in my region (West Midlands), there’s Open Mercia (@OpenMercia), a group of developers, data analysts and policy advisors interested in encouraging the release and use of open data for social, economic and environmental benefit. Our members come from the public sector, voluntary sector, academia and technology SMEs. With Open Mercia colleagues I organised an Open Knowledge Foundation Open Data event last year where some local developers, VCS colleagues and a few other interested people (about 20 people) came together to share and learn from each other, and make a case for opening up Charity Commission data. We’re now organising another event for Open Data Day 2014 (Feb 22nd) and hope to attract more of the same people, and some new people have also said they want to be involved – small acorns, but I think we will grow.
Elsewhere in the sector, 4 of us from the voluntary sector in the Midlands organised the first VCSSCamp (unconference for people connected with (staff, volunteers, trustees) voluntary and community sector infrastructure organisations) last June, attracting about 40 colleagues from the sector, interested in using digital tools (and data) more and better. We’re now starting to plan the second one, and VCS colleagues in the North have said they want to organise their own VCSS Camp.
In September 2013 I delivered a presentation on the VCS and Open data at Birmingham Science City Digital Working Group, a cross-sector group organised by Aston University, where I quoted from your Databridge final report. The VCS perspective was news to most of the attendees, but it was not unwelcome.
A well-attended ‘Data and charities’ roundtable for members of Charitable Trusts West Midlands (which I co-Chair) in September, with Nick Booth, founder of Podnosh (business which understands and helps people use social media for social good), and Andrew Mackenzie, a member of the Cabinet’s Open Data User Group 2012-13, as speakers. Members lapped up the information, and we are now looking at the possibility of doing some simple visualisations of members data.
You probably know that Datakind UK (“community of data scientists and non-profits working together to better collect, analyze, and visualize data in the service of humanity”) organised their first UK datadive (“weekend events that bring the data science community together with the non-profit community to tackle tough data problems”) in September 2013. This event looked at the data of some of the larger UK charities, which is fine, but I believe this model could also be scaled down.
I hope you (and anyone else who reads this) will find it hopeful, in that this kind of work is happening around the country. Once I started to understand your work on open data and the voluntary sector (although I’ve worked in the sector since 1990s and I’m a qualified librarian/community worker, it took me a while), I thought your Databridge UK work was ground-breaking and inspirational, and yes, I think it’s time has come!
When I started work in a Local Authority Housing Department in the early ‘70’s it was my job to collect housing repair requests – duplicate copies were made using carbon paper, and the big technological advancement of carbon strips enabled triplicate forms to be developed. Jobs were only monitored when one of the duplicates was returned to the office and crossed off the initial ledger.
While there are still issues concerning housing repairs, we must admit that the technological advancements made since then enables greater monitoring and reporting of actions to be undertaken. We have made substantial advancement from copying to carbon paper, from self carboning paper to databases and spreadsheets on computers.
Digital and technological ‘progress’ is now a given. ‘Digital by default’ is now the leading term that loosely describes current and potential changes in administration using new and ‘innovative’ technology. ‘Digital by default’ is not a new concept or process, it is just an up to date term that describes the journey outlined above, a journey that is not going to stop. If anything, it is going to speed up as technology changes and modifies faster.
The voluntary and community sector (VCS) has accommodated the move from early computers to flat screens, to laptops, blackberries, smartphones, iPads etc etc. We have accommodated changes in programme applications – online, monitoring through prescribed databases and spreadsheets, and reporting on pre-set and template programmes. Smart/digital systems, big/open data, ‘Smart Cities’ programmes are all processes and programmes that will benefit the sector in developing, delivering, monitoring and reporting services.
The question for the VCS is not about whether, or how, we engage in ‘digital by default’, but how do we proactively lead/shape our involvement within the ‘technological journey’. While the public sector is planning reforms and changes based on technological developments, there are growing concerns over our sector’s ability to take part in and respond to the continued changes.
Why is the sector relatively inactive in the proactive implementation of change related to monitoring and data in a digital format? There are at least two very distinct possibilities for this inactivity.
The first is related to the funding and economic structure of the sector. Whilst the sector has modified its services and activities in moving from grant programmes to commissioning, it can be argued that the changes in strategic planning and developing economic business support to the sector has not moved correspondingly.
The process of procurement, commissioning activities with outputs and unit cost analysis, developing application and monitoring processes that reduce staff time, and therefore core costs, does not take full cognisance of the sector’s process of capital investment. Do those who assess the need for, and commission, services appreciate the economic structures necessary for capital investment within our sector?
Public sector capital investment is undertaken within specific and planned budgets – VCS capital developments were previously undertaken through specific grants. These have, of course, stopped since the implementation of the commissioning process. Private sector capital investment is undertaken through borrowing and capitalisation of assets, or the leasing of equipment over a given and agreed period.
This process, for a variety of reasons, is not open to most organisations within our sector. As a sector we are therefore doubly disadvantaged – we are unable to borrow and capitalise assets as in the private sector, and we are unable to include capital development costs in commissioned programmes, as they may be ineligible, or they may raise the unit cost prohibitively.
The second is probably less palatable to our sector.
We make excuses, excuses that our clients/users would be disadvantaged if we were too technologically focused, but if we examine the statistics of use of existing technology, we may find this to be not that true.
There are 30 million users of Facebook in the UK – the largest participation in Europe. Over 7 million of this group is aged 40+, and over 15 million of them are aged between 20 and 39. The majority of this internet activity takes place in England, and is split almost equally between men and women, with slightly more women than men being engaged. This, according to socialbreakers, provides market penetration to 62% of the on-line population.
Ofcom statistics 2012 show that of the UK adult population aged 15-64 (39.9 million), 92% (36.7m) own a mobile phone. 15% have a mobile phone but no land line. 76% of adults have broadband (fixed + mobile), 49% mobiles are postpaid or contract.
39% of people use their mobile handset to access the internet, 50% of adults use social networking sites at home and there are 5.1m mobile broadband subscriptions (Dongles/PC datacard).
These statistics will have changed dramatically in the last five years and will continue to change even more dramatically.
VCS users and clients are using the internet, are competent with the internet (possibly within their limitations), but nevertheless they are using it, and we should not use our perceptions of our clients inadequacies to excuse our own.
The sector, therefore, has to aid and lead this journey, enabling current and future users to benefit from services that will inevitably be developed, delivered, monitored and reported on through smart and enhanced digital technology.
Where does that leave the sector in its involvement in using and developing its proactive involvement in digital by default?
Firstly, the sector should adopt the philosophy of ‘Digital by Design’, freely discussing how new technology can drive and monitor services. This will enable the sector to develop not only the delivery programmes, but also be proactive in the development of technology. As businesses, this will rank the sector alongside other SME’s, especially in European Structural Funds, accessing grants to fund the capital development process, developing sustainable business processes that will enable it to refund the process in the future.
Secondly, the sector needs to explore how the concept of using ‘open data’ and sharing our data can benefit the VCS and our users. We need to use what we have and what we know to generate interest and belief in what we are and do, not just in words or pictures but in statistics, in numbers, in data – the absolutes of public sector funding.
Lastly, the sector needs to, without prejudice, explore the possibilities afforded by the ‘new thinking’ of community banks. We need to think about how we develop as businesses, enveloping and encompassing the ‘new models’ of community business into our activity, driven by external economic factors but encompassing our belief in social justice and delivery of appropriate services to those that need them.
The sector is on the back foot, caught during a period of change, not yet clearly defining its new economic methodology. Instead of natural adjustment, forced change becomes the order of the day. These banks and processes may have been developed through a political process that argues that we cannot afford services the way we used to, and we all have to accommodate the results of the recession and implementation of budgetary restraint (cuts). We have to do what we, as a sector, have always done – find ways of surviving and continuing to deliver services.
The sector has become defensive and negative. In reality the politicians may, if we aren’t careful, circumvent the current VCS and develop new community processes, a new sector: community learning trusts, community forums, and community planning all loom over the sector, heir apparents of community engagement, developed by a coalition government operating as an oligarchy.
Instead of being on the back foot, we need to come out from the shadows of public sector and politically anodyne statements that, with one breath values us, and with another breath, accompanied by swift actions, changes the ball park, the rules and the funding.
Utilising new technology and open data we can empirically make and argue our case, monitor our activities, improve our services and counter the vision offered by others. We need these processes, not only to win the argument, but also to take part in the argument on equal terms. We will modify and adjust the rules from our own perspective, supported by facts, absolute information, our data and our ‘smart’ activities. This overtly challenges political ideological statements for change based mainly on market economics, and instead presents a well argued, empirically supported, counter-argument, an argument from which we can build/rebuild, develop, engage and progress.
 “All existing and future [government] services to be designed first and foremost for digital delivery” from ‘Digital Strategy, Delivering digital by default’, Felicity Shaw, Head of Policy, Digital Delivery, Government Digital Service, 2011
 Facebook stat tracker
 “ ‘Open by Default; Digital by Design’. …we should take a more thoughtful approach to technology, using it as a means to an end – to help us be open, transparent, accountable and human”, Carrie Bishop, FutureGov, 2012 http://wearefuturegov.com/2012/09/what-i-did-this-summer/
 “…the idea that certain data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_data