Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Becoming an iPhone, not a vending machine - GovInnovate 2014

This morning at GovInnovate 2014, Mark Headd from Accela spoke on the topic of civic hacking - a movement that involves people helping improve their society through spontaneous and unpaid volunteering.

He highlighted the example of a group in the UK who, while out on a night out, found a broken bike rack and set about repairing it.



These types of acts are contrary to the popularised notion of hacking, which involves malicious invasion, theft and destruction of virtual properties - data, systems, websites and physical devices connected to digital networks.

However civic hacking is a very powerful force and an expression of people's desire to improve their own environments and societies, to contribute in a positive way.

Mark spoke about government as a platform, suggesting that government must become more like an iPhone than a vending machine, in that rather than delivering everything itself, end-to-end, that government focus on the 'irreducible core' of functions and allow the community, not-for-profits and businesses deliver everything else, including services build on and for government.

He said that Apple's most significant innovation was opening up the iPhone to third part apps, resulting in an explosion of creativity and innovation, and building the iOS platform, first phones and then tablets, into the phenomenon it is today.

The challenge for government is in ensuring that it releases data and services in appropriate services for reuse - not simply dumping spreadsheets online as open data, but developing APIs and other data services which allow data and government services to have a community endpoint, enabling civic hackers to generate services and solutions of value to the community.

He also said that where government is focused on delivering services, it must take note of the 'design paths', the routes chosen by citizens to achieve a destination.

Similar to worn paths across public areas, civic hackers are now creating design paths technologically - redeveloping government and commercial services to suit their own needs.

Governments that adopt these two principles - enable civic hackers, and follow the design paths, are likely to become vastly more effective at meeting citizen needs while reducing costs and complexity.

Mark finished by saying that the window for innovation is still open for government, however that window may not remain open indefinitely - technology is not forgiving and the community is powering ahead.

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Liveblog for Govinnovate 2014 Day 2

We're into day 2 of GovInnovate, with a focus on IT security.

Keep an eye on the liveblog below and the Twitter hashtag #govinnovate

Live Blog GovInnovate 2014 liveblog Day 2
 

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

GovInnovate Day 1: Government must do more than tinker around the edges

This morning at GovInnovate 2014 we heard a keynote from Dominic Campbell, founder and CEO of FutureGov.
Dominic made a strong point that governments can't continue to cut 5% from their costs each year and expect to continue to improve service delivery.

He said that ultimately this strategy would stop agencies from being able to deliver effectively services, potentially resulting in disastrous collapses, social damage and even deaths.

As such, Dominic suggested that governments needed to invest in redesigning their service delivery from end-to-end, employing a design-based process and codesign principles to involve the people who receive the services in the conceptual design of how the service is access and delivered.

As an example, Dominic pointed to the Casserole system his company had codesigned as a replacement to increasingly costly and unviable 'meals on wheels' services.

Taking a transactional approach, Casserole recognised that meal delivery was based on supply and demand. Some people wanted to eat, while some had surplus food or enjoyed to cook - what they had to do was design a system to connect the two groups in a mutually beneficial way.

Using a codesign approach, FutureGov developed Casserole to connect home cooks with people needing food provision.

Casserole was developed without the involvement of government, initially prototyping on a single street. It subsequently expanded to a council region and now extends across many council regions in the UK - to the places where it is wanted and needed.

Over 5,000 cooks are now registered with the system, with relationships between food provider and receiver having lasted up to three years so far.
The keys to the success of the service were the inclusion of users in the design process and the elegant design of the solution, which respects users and makes it as easy as possible to access and use.

The project has had side social benefits as well, fostering strong relationships between people which improves their quality of life.

Dominic believes that this kind of design process, involving the 'relentless exposure of bureaucrats to communities' will lead to far better services for citizens, delivered at lower costs to governments.
However they do not naturally evolve from a progressive cost-reduction approach. They require a reinvention of government services.

In conclusion Dominic pointed out that the community is done waiting for government and increasingly looking for alternative solutions to meet its needs.

If government doesn't get on this curve, it will become increasingly ineffective and irrelevant, undermining the supposed 'efficiency' of reduced cost through degraded service delivery.

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Liveblog for Govinnovate 2014 Day 1

Over the next few days I will be liveblogging and tweeting from GovInnovate 2014, so follow my blog and Twitter feed for all the latest views on the use of digital within government.

Live Blog GovInnovate 2014 Day 1

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Monday, November 03, 2014

The future of intelligence is distributed - and so is the future of government

In 2011 an IBM computer, Watson, beat human competitors at Jeopardy! 

This was a new landmark in artificial intelligence - a computer capable of correctly responding to plain English questions, in real time, by figuring out their intent.

At the time Watson was a computer as big as a room, and it was the only one of its kind in the world.

The original Watson still exists, as discussed in this Wired article, The Three Breakthroughs That Have Finally Unleashed AI on the World, however it is no longer alone.

Hundreds of Watsons are now in operation - not as room-sized computers, but operating 'in the cloud', as distributed software across thousands of open-source servers.

People can access the intellect and computing power of these Watsons through any computing device connected to the internet.

Even more significantly, like many artificial intelligences, Watson is a learning machine that gets more knowledgeable and able to find insights the more it learns. Whenever a Watson learns something, making a new connection, that knowledge is shared with every Watson - making it a distributed intelligence, able to learn at rates far faster than even a single supercomputer, or human, is able to learn.

The power of Watson isn't in the revolutionary algorithms that power its learning, it's in the network itself - how separate Watsons can share knowledge and learn from each other.

This is how humans evolved civilisation - by capturing, codifying, storing and sharing knowledge in sounds, images and words to pass it on from one individual to another.

However Watson hints at a more robust future for human intelligence, and for how we govern ourselves.

Humans have proven over the centuries that having more learners with better knowledge sharing means faster progress and better decision-making. Books, universal schooling and the internet have shown how dramatically a society can progress when appropriate knowledge sharing systems are in place.

The key is to focus on the size and complexity of the networks, not the expertise of individual 'nodes' (you might call them humans).

For computers this means that the more Watsons we create, and the more complex the knowledge sharing between them, the faster they will learn.

For governments this means the greater the transparency, and the more informed citizens are participating in knowledge sharing, the better the decisions and outcomes will be.

Now this isn't how government is currently constituted. The notion of representative democracy is that governance is handed to experts and specialists who live and breathe government so the rest of the population doesn't have to.

We elect politicians who are supposed to representative the interests of their electorates, and appoint bureaucrats whose role is to provide specialist knowledge and operate the machinery of government - develop policy, design and deliver programs, enforce laws and support citizens in emergencies.

By its nature this approach to government relies on experts who are placed separately to the population - often even physically removed and concentrated in a city like Canberra, Washington, Ottawa, Brazilia, Naypyidaw or Putrajaya.

This group (elected and appointed public servants alike) tend to become inwards focused - focused on how to make government keep working, not on whether it actually works and delivers for citizens.

Particularly inwardly focused governments tend to become so removed from their citizens that they are overthrown - though they've usually replaced with a not-dissimilar system.

Now we can do much better.

Rather than focusing on electing and appointing individual experts - the 'nodes' in our governance system, governments need to focus on the network that interconnects citizens, government, business, not-for-profits and other entities.

Rather than limiting decision making to a small core of elected officials (supported by appointed and self-nominated 'experts'), we need to design decision-making systems which empower broad groups of citizens to self-inform and involve themselves at appropriate steps of decision-making processes.

This isn't quite direct democracy - where the population weighs in on every issue, but it certainly is a few steps removed from the alienating 'representative democracy' that many countries use today.

What this model of governance allows for is far more agile and iterative policy debates, rapid testing and improvement of programs and managed distributed community support - where anyone in a community can offer to help others within a framework which values, supports and rewards their involvement, rather than looks at it with suspicion and places many barriers in the way.

Of course we need the mechanisms designed to support this model of government, and the notion that they will simply evolve out of our existing system is quite naive.

Our current governance structures are evolutionary - based on the principle that better approaches will beat out ineffective and inefficient ones. Both history and animal evolution have shown that inefficient organisms can survive for extremely long times, and can require radical environmental change (such as mass extinction events) for new forms to be successful.

On top of this the evolution of government is particularly slow as there's far fewer connections between the 200-odd national governments in the world than between the 200+ Watson artificial intelligences in the world.

While every Watson learns what other Watsons learn rapidly, governments have stilted and formal mechanisms for connection that mean that it can take decades - or even longer - for them to recognise successes and failures in others. 

In other words, while we have a diverse group of governments all attempting to solve many of the same basic problems, the network effect isn't working as they are all too inward focused and have focused on developing expertise 'nodes' (individuals) rather than expert networks (connections).

This isn't something that can be fixed by one, or even a group of ten or more governments - thereby leaving humanity in the position of having to repeat the same errors time and time again, approving the same drugs, testing the same welfare systems, trialing the same legal regimes, even when we have examples of their failures and successes we could be learning from.

So therefore the best solution - perhaps the only workable solution for the likely duration of human civilisation on this planet - is to do what some of our forefather did and design new forms of government in a planned way.

Rather than letting governments slowly and haphazardly evolve through trial and error, we should take a leaf out of the book of engineers, and place a concerted effort into designing governance systems that meet human needs.

These systems should involve and nurture strong networks, focusing on the connections rather than the nodes - allowing us to both leverage the full capabilities of society in its own betterment and to rapidly adjust settings when environments and needs change.

We managed to design our way from the primitive and basic computers of the 1950s to distributed artificial intelligences in less than 70 years.

What could we do if we placed the same resources and attention on designing governance systems that suited modern society's needs?

And it all comes down to applying a distributed model to governance - both its design and its operation, rather than focusing on the elevation of individual experts and leaders to rule over us.

It's a big challenge, but for a species that went from horses to spaceships in two generations, it surely isn't an impossible one.

And given that societies thrive or die depending on how they are governed, are we willing to take the the risk and hope that our current governance and political systems simple evolve into more effective forms within a human lifespan?

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