Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Considering copyright in a digital world - the 2013 Australian Digital Alliance Copyright Forum

Copyright is one of the battlefields of the digital age, with the ability to rapidly copy and distribute works via digital channels challenging 20th century industries that have relied on traditional copyright laws to profit and thrive.

It is also a key area for governments, who vary in their approach to copyright around the world.

From the US where material created by their Federal government is, by default, owned by the public, to the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and others, where governments are transitioning from closed copyright systems (what the government creates with public funds is owned by the government) to more open ones (the government owns the copyright but assigns the right for the public to reuse it with caveats), to closed systems which exist in many other jurisdictions around the world (what the government creates with public funds, the government owns and can sell to the highest bidder).

There's continuing scrutiny, review and debate over the 'right' setting for copyright - with the companies who only exist due to copyright (book publishers, movie and music producers) often at odds with their own customers, who wish to share books, music and video material they enjoy.

The current Australian Law Reform Commission's review into the topic, Copyright and the Digital Economy, is still ongoing (until November 2013), and copyright is likely to remain an area of contention for decades as digital continues to evolve and force a rethink of who owns or gets to exploit the value in created works.

So it is timely that on 1 March this year the  2013 Australian Digital Alliance Copyright Forum is being held in Canberra at the National Portrait Gallery to consider how Australia's copyright framework fits in with the 'digital world'.

This impacts on government agencies in as profound a way as it impacts on the commercial sector. Governments across Australia still sell significant amounts of copyright material and, despite progressive transition to open licensing, most of their 'back catalogue' remains under restricting copyright rules.

So I suggest that anyone interested in copyright consider attending this forum - there's a great line-up of speakers and likely to be much thought-provoking discussion.

For more details visit the Australian Digital Alliance's website: http://digital.org.au/content/2013-australian-digital-alliance-copyright-forum

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Transcribe Australia's archival records - earn points towards publications and posters

Late last year the National Archives of Australia launched a global first for national archives, allowing the public to collaborate in the digital transcription of Australian archival records.

The system, at transcribe.naa.gov.au, basically allowed the public to register for an account, pick from hundreds of digitally scanned public records and correct any errors in the automatic text recognition (of which there's lots!)

For each record corrected, a user earns points, which accumulate on a leaderboard so they can compare themselves to others in a competitive way (I'm currently 40th).

This approach by itself is innovative and has only been previously used in Australia by the National Library, which has operated its newspaper archives in the same crowdsourcing way for around six years.

However the National Archives have taken an additional exciting step. Users can now use the points they gain from correcting archival transcripts to earn copies of Archives' publications, posters and files.

Essentially, rather than spending money on publications from the NAA, the public can 'earn' those publications by improving Australia's historic record.

Now that's a fantastic example of how to both involve the public and to reward them for participation in a meaningful way.

There might still be some further need required to tweak the system so that people feel the level of work they do is appropriate to the rewards - currently the cheapest reward, the Collections booklet requires 50,000 points - which only the top eight leaderboard members have reached. However this is the first time a government agency has taken this type of step, so some refinement is to be expected.

That said, I'm motivated  to get back to work improving Australia's historic record and earning myself a material reward in thanks for doing so.

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

When (if ever) is it appropriate for a government agency or politician to delete a tweet or post?

While a sideshow to the fire disaster sweeping Australia, there's been reports in traditional media and conversations online over the last day regarding the decision by the Australian Government Housing Minister, Brendan O'Connor, to apologise for and delete a tweet that claimed that a tweet from Australia's Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, was a political stunt as it highlighted Abbot's volunteer fire fighting activities.

Without delving into the politics of this discussion, the topic raises an interesting area for both politicians and public servants. 

When (if ever) is it appropriate for a politician or government agency to delete a tweet, post or comment they put on a social network?

Let's start by putting this in a broad context. Politicians and agencies make public comments all the time through many different channels. 

Occasionally these comments may contain mistakes, be factually wrong or otherwise erroneous, accidentally (or deliberately) insensitive, cause concern or harm.

Many traditional channels have methods for officially retracting these incorrect/inappropriate comments. 

In parliament politicians can request that comments be 'struck off' Hansard, the official record of parliament, a gesture regularly used as part of an apology for becoming too heated in a moment and, I suspect, the reason Minister O'Connor deleted his tweet - he was following the protocol of parliament when apologising. 

Striking off is no longer an infallible way to remove a comment from public view. Members of the press gallery and people observing parliament in the visitors gallery can repeat or publish comments made by politicians, now in real-time using social media. The video recording of parliament is also unedited so someone could go back over these videos and Hansard to identify which comments were retracted, and why.

Equally government agencies (and companies) who issue incorrect media releases can and do retract them, often done when information in the release wasn't fully accurate. Historically journalists have respected this right as they want the right information and respect the ongoing relationship, though this isn't infallible either. I can personally think of several occasions where journalists have used a retraction to run a 'gotcha!' story, portraying an organisation as incompetent for making a minor mistake.

The ability to retract comments also extends, to some extent, to verbal statements to media by senior officials. Where a piece of information was incorrect, a Ministerial office or agency may issue a 'clarification'. In some cases these may more closely resemble a 'correction' instead, and again while media may respect having the correct information on the record, a 'gotcha' story opportunity might tempt them into ignoring the clarification, or publishing both versions.

So retractions are an established part of public engagement - simply a reflection that we're all human, capable of misreading a situation and saying something that offends or that, despite copious checking, sometimes the wrong numbers, dates or words get used.

Social media platforms recognise this as well and most have methods to allow people to delete or hide messages they post accidentally or regret after the fact, with Twitter and Facebook in particular having robust systems for deleting tweets and posts.

These system are also not infallible. Any comment, once recorded on the internet, may be copied, stored and republished by others. 

While this may not be a major concern for the average citizen, for public figures, institutions and corporations, they can never rely on being able to successfully delete a social media comment.

Twitchy, a site that acts as a newswire for social media comments by politicians and celebrities, even publishes a list of the top 20 deleted Tweets about US politics each year and the Sunlight Foundation runs an entire site dedicated to exposing the deleted tweets of US politicians, Politwoops.

So - is it ever appropriate for politicians or agencies to delete a tweet, post or comment online, given they can't guarantee it will disappear without a trace?

I think it is - though only in specific instances.

If an agency or a politician publishes a social media comment that is factually incorrect then it is OK to delete the comment, provided they do so within a short time period (a few hours) and reissue the correct information.

I hold this view because if an agency or politician places a factually incorrect comment online it will be indexed in search engines and become part of the permanent record of what they've said - potentially doing future harm to individuals who rely on information from that trusted source. Factually incorrect comments can also cause confusion,if different information is published through another channel, so deleting the incorrect comment reduces the potential for user confusion when presented with two different sets of 'facts' from an agency or politician.

Alongside this retraction by deletion, the agency or politician should also publish a correction notice via the same social media channel they used to publish the original incorrect message. While this could be seen as calling attention to and damaging the organisation or politician's credibility, what it actually does is highlight that, while a mistake was made, it was corrected as soon as possible. People respect a good recovery and the majority will respect an organisation or individual for being willing to admit fault in order to ensure that the public has the right information.

Other cases, such as my original example, where an online comment is perceived as offensive, political or otherwise upsets people - but is either opinion or is factually correct, I don't recommend deletion. These are the messages that people look for to call an organisation or individual's credibility into question and deleting them only adds fuel to the fire (as it did in this case).

Instead I recommend that the organisation or politician issue an unconditional apology, using the same channel used to make the original comment, and, if necessary, post a correction, but leaving the original comment live.

While there can be a strong temptation to make the offense 'disappear' by deleting the offending comment, it is better to offer the apology as suggested above and, if someone specifically was offended, to reach out to them personally to ask if they would prefer the original comment deleted as part of the process - giving them some control over the situation.

If they do wish it deleted, then delete it, and if subsequently criticised for the deletion, the organisation or politician can simply acknowledge the concern and highlight that it was deleted at the request of the offended party. That tends to shut down criticism quite quickly.

So, in summary, when do I believe it is appropriate for agencies or politicians to delete a social media comment?

When the original comment is factually wrong in a way that could cause future harm for people who rely on it, and the comment has been live for only a few hours.

Otherwise the agency or politician should issue an apology and, if necessary, a correction. Then if a person or organisation was specifically mentioned in the comment, they should be asked if they wish the original comment removed.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Victorian government releases its Digital Innovation Review

Late last year I completed a piece of work with the Victorian government reviewing and benchmarking their digital innovation performance by agency, compared to other governments in Australia and around the world.

For the purposes of the report, digital innovation was defined as:
Involves the use of digital channels, tools and relevant methodologies to improve the operation of organisations and the delivery of services.
Within government this includes the use of social media and Government 2.0 approaches and channels, as well as broader use of online tools to improve agency management, policy development and service delivery.
The report reviews how Victorian citizens and the Victorian government have adopted digital channels, surveyed Victorian public servants on their online and digital innovation activity and included a series of in-depth best practice case studies of digital innovation by Victorian agencies.

It also provides suggestions for fostering digital innovation within government and improve the consistency and cost-effectiveness of services to citizens and capabilities across agencies.

The Victorian government has publicly released the Digital Innovation Review in full, and it can be found at: http://www.egov.vic.gov.au/victorian-government-resources/trends-and-issues-victoria/information-and-communications-technology-victoria/the-victorian-government-digital-innovation-review.html

I hope it is useful for governments and agencies around the world.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Looking back, looking forward - where now for the eGovAU blog

Stepping into the fifth year I've operated the eGovAU blog, I wanted to take a look back into its history, and a look forward to what readers can expect in the next year.

I started eGovAU in 2008 to help access and share information and experience across the online communications space within government, as I found there were few formal networks or forums for people working in this space to get together and share their expertise and challenges.

At the time few agencies employed social media or Government 2.0 in their official activities, there was low awareness of the options and considerable concerns about the risks of new media channels. Public servants who used social networks personally kept a low profile, while many middle and senior managers I spoke to simply didn't see the value of social media in government communications, service delivery or policy work.

Now, just into 2013, I've published 1,259 posts (including this one), ranging on topics from open government and social media to how new media can and is changing the process of service delivery and policy development. I've had 1,353 (non-spam) comments in my blog, though many more through content syndicated in other sites.

Monthly page views to the eGovAU blog
eGovAU has had over 400,000 page views and, with content syndicated or republished on five continents, the actual traffic has been much higher - as has the number of comments.

While this isn't amazingly high, there's realistically a small core audience for my main topics, and I've received enough positive feedback in person and via other channels to feel that eGovAU is worthwhile.

Traffic to eGovAU has grown consistently over the years, despite decreasing my post rate from five per week in 2008-09 to three per week in 2010-12.  I like to think this correlates with the growth in interest in Gov 2.0 and social media within governments in Australia.

In the same period of time - 2008-2013, we've seen the majority of state and federal agencies, and many local councils, adopt social media channels as a core part of their external communications and engagement. Many have mandates, support and guidance for social media, open data and Government 2.0 activities - though there's a few tail-enders still resisting the trend.

Gov 2.0 and government social media groups have been established in many jurisdictions, with regular free events helping to formally and informally help public servants to share successes, seek experienced help to address individual agency challenges and to help share and build on good work, improving processes and outcomes for governments.

My blog has also become more cumbersome - with over 1,200 posts, finding older (but still relevant) content is tough - even for me. While I use largely standard tags to organise posts, I can't easily divide content into different types - product reviews, case studies, resources, thinking.

As such it's time for my blog to change tact, from the goal of building the Gov 2.0 community, to a focus on supporting the existing community, helping it to expand beyond its digital communications and IT roots into every corner of the public service.

So this year you'll see a number of changes to eGovAU, starting soon.

This will begin with a change in the blog platform (and by necessity the location), to one that provides better control over the design and layout of content. This aims to make information structurally easier to find and read, allows me to improve commenting, rating and sharing systems and to address comments about the colour scheme (FYI John).

Following this change I'll begin providing a broader range of content posts, designed to both help people new to Gov 2.0 and social media in government and to provide useful content and resources for experienced practitioners. This will include (but not be limited to):
  • product/service reviews to help busy public servants understand the options available to them, 
  • topic briefing papers to help middle and senior managers make quick sense of specific areas, 
  • a searchable resource centre indexing useful third-party papers, articles and research reports, 
  • templates and tools to help agencies 'hit the ground running' with specific social media projects, and
  • an improved calendar of public-sector relevant Gov 2.0, open data and social media events.
I've also begun working with an editor to develop a series of free eBooks, each focused on a different Gov 2.0 theme, to make it easier to find and absorb information on particular topics. These are based on my blog posts, but will include additional content updating them and linking them together.

I will also be pushing into video and audio posting, to provide a different way to access content,  providing a regular snapshot of what is happening in the Gov 2.0 space and allowing me to support interviews and video case studies with various people involved in open government and Gov 2.0 around the world.

Looking back, I'm proud of what I've achieved with eGovAU and of how actively many across Australian governments have adopted digital channels to help their agencies continue to be relevant and effective in a networked world - often despite great internal resistance.

Looking forward, I want eGovAU to continue to help public servants to realise the promise of new media, to amplify communication, increase transparency and accountability, inform debates and bring more citizens 'inside the tent' on developing and implementing government policies and services.

As always I welcome suggestions and comments - positive and negative - of what you'd like to see more or less of. I'm almost always available for a chat on Twitter and will be around in person as well.

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