Friday, December 02, 2016

CSIRO ON Innovation Bootcamp report - Innovation thriving in the public sector

I was privileged to attend CSIRO's On Innovation Bootcamp on Wednesday and Thursday this week, a two day intensive for CSIRO, university and other government teams transitioning concepts from government scientific research towards becoming startup companies.

This was the third round for the ON programme, with approximately 80 teams having now gone through the process to some degree. It was my second ON bootcamp as a volunteer mentor.

Hosted at UTS in Sydney and facilitated by Pollenizer's Phile Morle and Tristonne Forbes, 8 CSIRO teams, 10 university teams and one from the Defence Science and Technology Group went through the bootcamp program.

They spent two days testing and validating their customer, product and market assumptions to confirm whether their concepts could truly make it as a commercial product in the global market, then pitched their new businesses to three judges with extensive startup capital experience, competing for ten places in the 12-week ON Accelerator program at Polleniser.

The teams were supported by about 25 volunteer mentors from a range of startup and corporate backgrounds, as well as CSIRO ON's staff.

Comparing this bootcamp with the last one I'd attended, this time the teams were more mature. Many had prototypes and had either tested their products or found their first customers. Several brought along product samples, or wore team t-shirts emphasising their spirit and focus.

This maturity made it only more intensive as the teams thought through their MASSIVE vision, developed their roadmaps to success and tested their value propositions against the needs of their potential customers.

During the bootcamp all of the teams went on a huge emotional rollercoaster. Some arrived with a clear vision of their product and markets, but found that their target customers didn't perceive the problem they were addressing, or weren't prepared to pay for a solution.

Other teams were still forming (one I worked with hadn't met before face-to-face), or still saw their concept as an interesting research project rather than as a compelling commercial offering, and had to rethink their roles, approach and language.

I witnessed several amazing breakthroughs where teams realised that their initial thinking needed some adjustment, and pivoted their product, market or customer target to increase its chance of market success.

At the end of the two days all the teams had made amazing progress, and gave stunning three minute pitches. I don't envy the decisions the judges will have to make.

I've included a series of tweets below from the pitches which highlights each team's area of focus. Frankly I could see 90% of them going on to become successful, either as a business or licensing their technologies, with a number having market maker potential for creating global change.

Remember that all of these are public sector innovations - government-funded science that has become potentially valuable technology with vast commercial potential.

The list below is in the order of the pitches.

Virtual Training - VR training for healthcare professionals and families incorporating AI

NutriThick - an intensively healthy drink made from Australian seaweed that counters vitamin deficiencies amongst older people

RadVet - a tested cancer treatment for pets, that has already been successful in humans

MICE - a secure image sharing service for Doctors, to accelerate treatment through providing information to specialists

Green and Gold - a genetic approach to activating the leaves of plants to produce renewable fuel oils, including aviation fuel

VitiApp - a decision support system, particularly for vineyards, that helps farmers and their consultants make better decisions and produce improved wines and crops

detectORE - a simple in-the-field testing solution for mining samples to accelerate decision making and save money

Going for Gold - a non-toxic gold extraction technology that replaced the cyanide currently in use and can also increase yields for smaller gold miners by 50%

DrapeMeasure - a disruptive patternmaking system that uses 3D mathematics to provide faster and more precise measurements of 3D shapes (such as people for clothes), that has applications across the fashion, building and design industries

LuciGem - who have developed stable nanoscale diamond and ruby probes to explore and understand live cellular environments

Passive Radar - a system using environmental radio sources to map objects, providing enhanced situational awareness for military forces without revealing their locations with active radar

Wildlife Drones - who have developed an enhanced animal tracking system six times faster and able to collect substantially more data than existing methods, with applications across wildlife research, agriculture and pest control

Feraliser - an indigenous-driven initiative which transforms feral pigs into fertiliser, providing regional jobs and improving environmental and social outcomes.

SensorCloud - a data integration and analysis service that can digitally transform the agricultural value chain, by equipping agronomists and farmers with integrated and improved intelligence for decision-making

Australian Silicon Photonics - a group that has developed a low heat and energy consumption solution for moving data within data centres, and eventually within devices, allowing our digital networks to grow enormously at much lower cost and impact

D-Tech IT - an automated fish identification system for tracking fishing catches at source to avoid catching the wrong species and increase the efficiency of fishery operation

IOkeeper - a cloud security system that allows individuals and organisations to encrypt all the data they place or transfer through the cloud, keeping it safe even when cloud providers are hacked

DentalAR - a training system for dentists that uses augmented reality to quickly upskill students and allow trained dentists to access vital new information in real time to improve patient outcomes.

Robotic finger orthosis - a 3D printed custom robot exoskeleton managed by a mobile phone or smart device that helps people to recover more rapidly and completely from hand injuries

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Monday, November 28, 2016

Guest post from Henry Sherrell on access to open data for effective policy development

Henry Sherrell is a former Australian Public Servant who now works in policy research at the Australian National University.

As a researcher, open data has become an important input into his work. As such I thought it worth sharing (with his permission) this post from his blog, On The Move, as an example of some of the difficulties researchers still face in accessing data from the Australian Government for important policy work.

It is notable that since Henry published his post, only four days ago, the legislation regarding Henry's policy work is going back to parliament - still with no modelling of its impact on affected communities or any real public understanding of the potential consequences.

I've reproduced Henry's post as a guest post below in full. You can also view Henry's post here in On The Move.

My battle with the Australian Border Force Act: A small, but worrying, example

There are hundreds of interesting questions to ask when someone moves from one country to another. For as long as I can remember, Australia has been one of the best places to explore migration. There are two reasons for this: We welcome immigrants and the government and bureaucracy collect and make accessible robust migration data.
They are not household names but people like Graeme Hugo, the late Paul Miller, Deborah Cobb-Clarke and Peter McDonald have shaped global debates on migration. A new generation of scholars are now examining big, important questions about the intersection migration and work as well as any number of other themes, many of which will help us as a society in the future. Yet this tradition depends on access to Australian migration data from a number of sources, including the ABS, the Department of Immigration and various surveys funded by the government.
Until I received the following email from DIBP, I hadn’t realised just how uncertain this type of knowledge will be in the future:
“The data that was provided to Department of Agriculture was done so for a specific purpose in line with the Australian Border Force Act 2015 (ABF Act).  Unfortunately your request does not comply with the ABF Act and we are therefore unable to provide the requested data.”
I didn’t receive this email because I asked for something controversial. The reason this email stopped me in my tracks was I asked for something which was already largely public.
About a month ago I stumbled across the below map in a Senate submission to the Working Holiday Reform legislation.  The Department of Agricultural and ABARES had produced the map to help show where backpackers worked to gain their second visa. This was an important part of a big public debate about the merits or otherwise of the backpacker tax (as I write this legislation has just been voted on in the Senate, amended and defeat for the government).
I’d never seen this information before and I’m interested in exploring it further as there are decent labour market implications stemming from backpackers and the results may shed light on employment and migration trends. As you can see below, the Department helpfully documented the top 10 postcodes where backpackers worked to become eligible for their 2nd visa:
I get teased a little bit about the number of emails I send asking for stuff. But I’ve found you normally don’t get something unless you ask for it. So using the Department of Agriculture’s handy feedback form on their website, I asked for the data showing how many 2nd working holiday visas have been granted for each postcode.
The top 10 postcodes are already public but as the map shows, there is lots of other information about what you might term a ‘long tail’ of postcodes. One reason I wanted this information was to match up major industries in these postcodes and understand what type of work these people were doing. It would also be good to go back a couple of years and compare trends over time, whether employment activity shifts over time. All sorts of things were possible.
One thing I’ve learnt in the past is don’t ask for too much, too soon. In addition, there is always a potential privacy consideration when examining immigration data. For these reasons, I limited my request to the list of postcodes and number of second visa grants in each. That’s it.
This ensured I excluded information about individuals like age and country of birth which may compromise privacy. I also assumed if the number of backpackers in a postcode was less than five, it would be shown as “<5 as="" data.="" for="" immigration="" is="" of="" other="" p="" practice="" standard="" this="" types="">
ABARES let me know they had passed the response to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. After following up with DIBP twice, about a month after my initial request, I received the above email which prompted a series of internal questions roughly in this order:
  • You have to be f****** kidding me?
  • If the data was provided to the Department of Agricultural with the knowledge it would be at least partially public, why isn’t the same data available but in a different format? i.e. a spreadsheet not a map based
  • How does my request not comply with the ABF Act? What’s in the ABF Act which prevents highly aggregated data being shared to better inform our understanding of relevant public debates?
And finally: why couldn’t someone work out a way to comply with the ABF Act and still provide me with data?
From what I can work out, the relevant part of the ABF Act is Part 6 pertaining to secrecy and disclosure provisions. Section 44 outlines ‘Disclosure to certain bodies and persons’ and subsection (1) is about ‘protected information that is not personal information’ disclosed to “an entrusted person”. This is the same process causing serious consternation among health professionals working in detention centres.
I am not “an entrusted person”. According to subsection (3), the Secretary of the Department has authority to designate this. Perhaps I should email and ask? Again from what I can work out, it looks like the person who created the data made a record now classified as protected information. This information is then automatically restricted to people who are classified as entrusted, including other bureaucrats, such as those in the Department of Agriculture.
Yet this begs the question. If the Department of Agriculture can publish a partial piece of a protected record, why can’t the Department of Immigration and Border Protection?
All I know is this stinks. And while this concern does not rank anywhere close to those faced by doctors and nurses who work in detention centres, the slow corrosion of sharing information caused directly by this legislation will have massive costs to how we understand migration in Australia.
Think about the very reason we’re even having a debate about the backpacker tax. Not enough people knew about immigration policy, trends and behaviour. The wonks at Treasury didn’t do any modelling on the labour market implications and the politicians in ERC and Cabinet – including the National Party – had no idea about what this might do to their own constituents. Outside the government, when I did a quick ring around in the days after the 2015 budget, the peak industry groups for horticultural didn’t think the backpacker tax would be a big deal. If I was a farmer, I’d rip up my membership. People should have known from very early on this would have real effects in the labour market as I wrote 10 days after the Budget. The fact no-one stopped or modified the tax before it got out of control shows we are working off a low base in terms of awareness about immigration.
The Australian Border Force Act is only going to make that more difficult. Hiding basic, aggregated data behind this legislation will increase future episodes of poor policy making and limit the ability of Australia to set an example to world for immigration. Our Prime Minister is fond of musing on our successful multicultural society yet alongside this decades of learning that has shaped communities, policy decisions, funding allocations and everything else under the sun.
I have no idea how I’m meant to take part in this process if access to information is restricted to bureaucrats and ‘entrusted persons’, who at the moment don’t seem able to analyse worth a damn, judging from the quality of public debates we are having. I don’t expect a personalised service with open access to immigration data. But I expect the public service to serve the public interest, especially when the matter is straightforward, uncontroversial and has the potential to inform relevant public debate.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Census 2016 Senate Inquiry report - what's been recommended to avoid another #CensusFail

Both the Senate Inquiry report on Census 2016 and the Review of the Events Surrounding the 2016 eCensus (by Alastair MacGibbon, Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Cyber Security) have just been released - I've embedded both reports below (so they appear in one place).

They are a good read with some useful recommendations for the future.

Reflecting on what has become known as #CensusFail, in comparison to other technical issues experienced by government, the Census 2016 experience probably rates as the most significant public ICT issue experienced by the Australian Government so far this century.

While in the last 15 years the Australian Government has had other incidents, these have been relatively minor, with limited public visibility or impact.

This includes incidents such as the 15 year delay in creating an Apple version of e-Tax (now rectified), launch issues with sites such as MySchool, challenges with access and security within the MyGov system, data breaches from the PCEHR (personally controlled electronic health records) eHealth system and the accidental exposure of private data for asylum seekers.

In contrast, the issues experienced during the 2016 Census have been far more widespread in their public visibility, impact and long-term ramifications for trust in government.

However, to put "the most significant public ICT issue experienced by the Australian Government this so far this century" into perspective - no-one died, no-one was hurt and no-one even lost control of their personal data.

At worst a number of government and IBM staff experienced unhealthy levels of anxiety for several days.

Given the struggles that developing countries have had to get their egovernment ICT working in the first place (with a reported 15% success rate); or the challenges advanced countries like the US have had with national systems (such as ObamaCare); or the experience of states like Queensland, which could not pay some of its Health staff for some time when its new payroll system failed, CensusFail just doesn't rate as an ICT disaster.

The actual operational impact of the 2016 Census problems was merely a short delay for people attempting to fill in the Census online.

Ultimately the ABS still exceeded the desired Census response rate, will still be releasing Census data much faster than ever before, and the agency still saved over $70 million dollars by moving more of the Census online.

However despite not actually rating as a ICT disaster, there was still a real cost to CensusFail - the perceptual and reputational damage from the ABS publicly failing to deliver on its Census Night promise, exacerbated by poor crisis engagement.

As a net result the real impact of CensusFail is on long-term governance in Australian, due to a reduction in trust in public institutions to 'do the job right the first time'.

I'm aware of other agencies now being regularly questioned by their Ministerial offices on whether they have any systems or projects which pose a similar reputational risk to the Australian Government. I've watched as the term 'CensusFail' has become the 'go to' term raised whenever a new government ICT issue is reported.

As a result the trust in government agencies to deliver complex technical solutions has been diminished, and it will take years to recover.

I hope that the recommendations in this Senate report, the lessons from Census 2016, will be top-of-mind for every public servant and Minister engaged in a significant government ICT project for years to come.

Hopefully the right lessons will be learnt - that managing your communications and public engagement well when the ICT gets wonky is critical.

In fact you can even transform a technical failure into an engagement success, if you get your messaging and timing right - strengthening, rather than weakening, trust in government.

Census 2016 Senate Inquiry Report as redistributed by Craig Thomler on Scribd

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When should government agencies use a big stick versus a velvet glove? Human Services sends legal letter to 'Save Medicare' site

My daily news roundup this morning included a small story about how the Department of Human Services had sent a legal letter to the owner of the website the other week, threatening expensive legal action if the site didn't cease using Medicare's brand and name.

The letter, which was the first contact the website owner had had from the department, included a demand that the website be taken offline within 48 hours, that the domain name, Facebook page and Twitter accounts be cancelled or changed (per the letter embedded below), and that the owner does not use any derivatives of the Medicare name and brand in future - under threat of legal action seeking costs.

For a lawyer this is a fairly standard and templated first stage legal action for a breach of a trademark, and letter like this are regularly sent by companies to other companies who are intentionally and knowingly breaching Australia's trademark laws.

However when sending this to an individual volunteer, who happens to be a 66 yr-old retiree, who created the website in support of Australia's world class health system, it can come across as a very sudden and threatening, even bullying, over-reaction.

As the owner of the website said to Fairfax media, "I've committed a terrible crime, I don't agree with a government policy...".

The matter has now become a cause célèbre for GetUp and sections of the media, and is nudging into the political space as well - impacting on the department's reputation in the process.

Now I've had some experience of this type of situation. When working in a government department, managing their digital presence, a senior manager in another area brought to my attention a website operating in Australia which claimed that the department had endorsed their product.

The website included a copy of the department's branding as well as the endorsement claims, which I was told were untrue.

The senior manager wanted me to find out who owned the website so they could issue a legal letter, similar to the one issued by Human Services, and "come down on them like a tonne of bricks" (I'm paraphrasing the sentiment).

I suggested taking a glove, rather than a stick, approach - and first speaking with the website owner to see if there was a misunderstanding that could be resolved before rolling out the legal guns.

The senior manager was happy for me to give it a go, so I contacted the website owner by email and asked if we could have a conversation about their use of the department's branding and endorsing text.

They agreed and we had a good conversation - they were a small business owner and entrepreneur, who had seen a great product overseas and intended to import it to Australia and had approached the department to check that the product would be acceptable and useful in its performance.

A letter had been sent from the department, signed by a senior executive, providing a bureaucratic response that, to a trained public servant, said essentially "we see no issues at this time, but you're on your own".

However, as someone with little experience with government, the letter appeared like a glowing endorsement signed by a very senior official, encouraging the small business owner to put up the department's branding and a statement about the department endorsing the product.

When I explained the matter more clearly to the small business owner, they immediately apologised and agreed to remove both the branding and the endorsing text from his site. I asked for that in writing, and they sent me an email.

True to their work they took them down, and the department sent them a very nice letter (which I wrote), signed by a senior executive thanking them for their prompt action and wishing them all the best success in their future entrepreneurial endeavours.

While not completely similar to the 'Save Medicare' situation, this example could very easily have escalated if someone like me wasn't involved in the process.

Going to the stick first may be tempting to lawyers, who are used to dealing with lawyers, and to public servants who are used to dealing with knowledgeable and experienced public servants.

However the average Australian doesn't have a legal degree, an understanding of trademark or other IP laws, or the finely honed senses that (well-educated) public servants develop over the course of their career.

In this case the media have already pointed out that political parties and individual politicians have also used the Medicare logo and colours in their material in support or opposition to various government policies around the service - but none have received the same kind of legal demand despite essentially doing the same thing as this site - providing a political position on a service most Australians use.

So the legal process already has had a bad look as it doesn't appear to be fair or equitable. On top of this there appears to have been no attempt to resolve the situation more 'peacefully'.

Given the website had almost no traffic prior to the publicity fostered by the legal letter, ultimately this is a problem caused by a heavy-handed approach by the department.

This is surprising because Human Services, via it's Centrelink business, has long seen public groups use its branding in protests about the service. They generally monitor them, only taking action if there's malice or commercial gain involved.

However it only takes one senior manager to assume that someone who puts up a protest website must be malicious to damage the department's brand, and the reputations of  the Ministers involved.

In the SaveMedicare situation, the department could potentially have had a more equitable solution by approaching the website owner and having a conversation, rather than leaping to a legal attack.

This doesn't mean sacrificing the stick. It can be kept in reserve, and sometimes will need to be used, but it does mean thinking through the consequences of using the stick before it is wielded. Sometimes the stick hits back - hard.

Below is the legal letter, now shared publicly through the media.

The website Facebook page and Twitter account remains online, past the deadline for removal. While the owner has been clear that they cannot afford legal costs, GetUp and other groups are mobilising in support.

Even if pursued and successful, the legal action is unlikely to dissuade any future individuals from use of government branding - it may even encourage them to do so more often.

There's still time to deescalate the situation, and avoid further public damage to the agency, though it is unclear if the department feels it would take more damage from proceeding or ceasing action - damage it could have avoided entirely with a little strategic thinking.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A new hire isn't always the best solution - rethinking organisational resourcing in the age of flux

After 18 months freelancing in digital engagement and innovation consulting, I've been revisiting the recruitment market to see what opportunities are becoming available as the digital transformation environment matures across Australia.

There's definitely some very interesting roles around - more and more of them part-time - but also still a great deal of older thinking about.

I've recently observed friends in public sector processes where organisations have been very definitive about what they wanted "someone with extensive private sector experience in leading digital innovation", "someone with deep-rooted data analytics expertise who can lead a transformational team".

However it seems that in many cases these organisations fall short of hiring what they say they want. In the first example above, a career bureaucrat was hired, in the second a generalist manager with a little change management expertise.

These are only a sampling of some of the decisions I've seen made - where government agencies have defined clearly they need someone prepared to be disruptive, but have settled for someone 'safe'.

I appreciate there's factors behind these decisions and don't doubt that the people hired have been intelligent and well-qualified - but do they match what these public sector organisations need?

This has led me into some deeper thinking around whether current recruitment processes are capable of meeting the needs of organisations during what is a transformational time.

Traditionally most roles have been clearly definable and static for long periods of time, reflecting the organisations they're part of. Business and public sector hierarchies are designed to force order onto chaos and over the last century have generally fallen into two buckets - specialists, who have deep but narrow skillsets, and generalists, with broad but shallower skillsets.

Specialists were required to be experts in a few things, with deep training and experience reinforcing their natural abilities. They have traditionally worked in narrowly defined silos on work that fits within their expertise set - in many ways like the operators on a single station on a manufacturing production line.

Generalists, on the other hand, were there to manage end-to-end delivery of outcomes, taking on a horizontal role to the specialist vertical. These people - the product managers, project managers, COOs and the like, had broader responsibilities but relied on the deep experience of specialists to deliver specific 'packets' of work. Their skills were more managerial - coordinating resources and effort to achieve a desired outcome.

Most organisations still function in this way - it largely works and delivers the outcomes required.

However this approach is best designed for situations where an environment is largely stable - consistent organisational goals. customers, economic conditions, regulation, competition and technology.

When one of these factors change an organisation has to change - adapting to the new reality. Most organisations can cope with this reasonably well, provided that the factor changes from one stable state to another stable state. This could be the replacement of a CEO, Secretary or Minister, the introduction of a new technology such as mobile phones, a recession.

The change causes stress, the organisation may have to restructure or even institute a change program, but the change can and is managed within the overall framework of specialists and generalists.

However what happens when change becomes continuous. When a stable state shifts to a new 'stable' state every week - effectively shifting into an instable, or flux, state.

Suddenly the organisation no longer requires a change program, it has become the change program - with the requirement for all staff to continually adapt and shift their approach, position and activities to keep the organisation stable within flux.

The traditional specialist and generalist roles are now all endlessly mutable and adaptive, and suddenly the old approaches to recruitment begin to fail as the organisation begins to need individuals who are simultaneously generalists and specialists - who can leap between these two states as needed at any time.

Others have written about this as the rise of the fluid organisation. Rather than having hard roles and boundaries, the organisation flows with change, adapting and readapting itself as needed to fill the market space at the time.

In these types of organisations the notion of a job, of employment, is itself mutable. The practical differences between employee, contractor, consultant, partner, outsourced worker, supplier, competitor, largely disappear.

The organisation essentially scoops up the skills and capabilities it requires for a specific outcome, and then those people move elsewhere once the outcome is delivered - within or outside the organisation.

Our regulatory frameworks struggle with these forms of organisations as they depend on a central core 'organisational entity' to be responsible for signing contracts, taking money, representing in courts.

Our management hierarchies struggle, with empires disappearing overnight, peoples' status and responsibilities changing to adapt to the needs of the moment - everyone potentially a senior leader, a specialist, a consultant, at different times for different projects or goals.

Our recruitment practices struggle as well. They tend to align around one potential solution for an organisational challenge - hiring an employee (or at least a contractor) - whereas there may be a range of potential solutions, from retraining, through partnering to automation.

Even where a new hire is the most effective solution, organisations still struggle to hire for the future, often preferring to hire to fill a need today, rather than fully mapping how that need may change in the next few years.

This is having significant impacts on the job market right now. There's been a huge shift towards temporary and part-time roles (both in the public and private sector), which can be partially attributed to the more fluid needs of organisations.

What this situation suggests to me, other than there is an increasing need for new thinking around structuring and managing organisations for continual change, is that recruitment approaches need to be reframed around solving organisational problems with the most appropriate solutions.

Yes some recruiters already do a great job of proactively helping their clients to identify gaps and the skilled resources to fill them, however their solutions to a gap are limited to 'a staff member' or 'a contractor' - where other solutions may be more effective i.e. 'a partner', 'a consultant', 'retraining', 'restructuring', 'automation'.

Unfortunately though, even these proactive recruiters aren't themselves structured to offer solutions other than a person for a role - which suggest to me a role for a new form of 'resourcing advisor' that takes a longer and deeper view of organisational challenges and provides a broader set of solutions to draw on.

But for this type of approach to be effective, organisations need to also rethink their recruiting practices - from budgetary 'buckets' to hiring protocols to the definition of an employee.

They also need to recognise that the recruitment practices they used in the past may not continue to succeed into the future - in fact they may not be terribly effective now, with some studies indicating that almost half of all hiring decisions result in a failure.

As someone who has worked both for extremely hierarchical and extremely flexible organisations (including one that has no employees, contracts all staff and has been successful for nearly 20 years), I can see how difficult it is for organisations glued to, and by, their structures to change.

However ultimately what defines an organisation is the outcomes it achieves for the audiences it serves - its structure, personnel and resourcing practices are all flexible and replaceable tools for achieving its desired goals.

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