Posts Tagged ‘Politicians’

Data, crown copyright, archives, listening to communities and the "empowerment heist".

Posted on 10th May 2009 by

I’m rootling through my feed reader catching up.

On Thursday Tom Watson announced that Crown Copyright was to be revised so those wanting to data mash with information from the Office of Public Sector Information will now be automatically granted a license. With a rather neat turn of phrase “They say information is power, but only distributed information is truly empowering” he went on to say:

the Office of Public Sector Information (OPSI) has looked again at the restrictions of Crown Copyright, and now a licence will automatically be granted to anyone wanting to use the information rather than having to apply beforehand.  OPSI has also shown how Government can publish in a ‘web-friendly’ way rather than just as PDFs, and I want to see this approach rolled out across Government.  Today I’m pleased to announce that COI is launching new standards on quality to make Government sites as effective and easy to use as possible.”

The COI site on web site clarity was first mention on the Power of Information Blog and is   http://usability.coi.gov.uk/

The Guardian has been continuing it’s Free Our Data reporting, with Charles Arthur a little underwhelmed by the announcements above:

Umm. It’s not quite the revolution that some of us were hoping for. It doesn’t even yet seem to legitimise the re-use and repurposing by sites such as theyworkforyou.com of the contents of Hansard – which is Crown copyright. That’s the trouble with tectonic shifts, though. Nothing seems to happen for a very long time, and then sometimes it happens all at once.

I don’t agree, (and neither does Tim Davies) the shift won’t be seismic in the sense of some sort of overnight social media sensation.  The last 5 years has seen steady change and the groundwork is still going on at government level.  The COI’s social media guidance document (a pdf – tut) says civil servants should:

Help non-governmental bodies to build new services by structuring information so that they can combine public data with private data.  Avoid replicating what is already being undertaken by non-governmental bodies.

Wednesday saw the launch of a 12 week consultation called Archives for the 21st Century, again data, how we capture and share it will be at the heart of this.  The press information mentions one wonderful example of a data set created from digitising the log books of ships going back to the 17th century.  Hour after hour mariners from Britain, Holland, France and Spain would log the time, their position and the weather.  The CLIWOC project is now a database for Climate Change Study.  Another example they use is Birmingham Stories.

Also on Wednesday Downing Street restored the e-mail the Prime Minister service and Hazel Blears announced that one way for councils to save £600 million a year was by listening to their communities.  This riled Julian Dobson who called it an “empowerment heist”:

‘Involving communities are key to unlocking greater savings – when it comes to finding efficiencies, empowering local people is part of the solution, not part of the problem,’ she said.

There is of course some truth in this – councils that listen to local people and provide services that are valued will achieve more for their money. But the crude equation of ‘empowerment’ with savings is dangerous nonsense: there’s no rationale for turning what may be a fortunate by-product in some circumstances into the raison d’etre.  Yesterday’s speech might have been excusable were it not for the ten years of rhetoric that had preceded it.

Ofqual’s new Chief Officers report has been made comment-able and Spaghettitesting listed the Government winners of the Webby’s including a non-governmental site from the transparency movement  GovernmentDocs.org.

Should the government stop local councils competing with local newspapers?

Posted on 29th April 2009 by

Below (scan down a bit) is a piece I’ve written at the invitation of Paul Bradshaw from the Online Journalism Blog. Paul e-mailed to say:  “I’m creating a 6-part series of responses to the government as part of its inquiry into the future of local and regional media. I will be submitting the whole – along with blog comments – to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. They invited responses on 6 areas. This part will look at the 3rd:

The appropriateness and effectiveness of print and electronic publishing initiatives undertaken directly by public sector bodies at the local level. The question of what public sector bodies should be allowed to publish, how that affects local journalism, and how it affects local democracy, is one of the most difficult to resolve – not least because it involves so many interconnected elements.”  So that’s what Paul asked. He has written this and here are my thoughts – mostly on the question of the quality and transparency of information paid for from the public purse:

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I talk to a lot of people who work in council communications departments. They’re all conscious that the regional press is in trouble.  If they’ve not recently lost a local paper they’ve certainly seen local journalists lose their jobs.

They consistently tell me one thing: “Because there are fewer reporters it’s easier to get coverage. Those who are left are really grateful for the stuff we give them.  More and more they run it verbatim”.

On the one hand we have newspaper editors complaining about direct competition from council newspapers and websites, on the other they increase their reliance on content from these same sources.   This tension amply illustrates the waning value of newspapers as mediators.

Public bodies will continue to want to connect directly with an audience. They will find it ever easier to tell their stories in audio, video, maps, text and images and they will attach all that content to rss feeds to be used by individuals and publishers of all sizes.

Not only that but public services have a growing responsibility to talk directly to the public.  The conversational web and data mashing offer an unprecedented opportunity to collaborate with us to improve public services.  It would be negligent for any media regulation to stifle this.  Indeed central government already actively encourages local councils to improve their direct relationship with the communities they serve.

Any minister making decisions now risks being derided in years to come for not understanding quite how powerful these new flows of information are, first to undermine the business model of newspaper and second to strengthen the democratic opportunities for our public services. I can’t imagine any sensible intervention from Andy Burnham or Hazel Blears demanding that this trend should be somehow stopped!

New standards for Public Information

Newspaper editors should stop bleating about potential competition. Instead they should fight for new standards for public information.

Clearly all public communications departments take care to be accurate and negotiate the line between politics and public service. Often they will check their facts more carefully than journalists might because they get more stick for being wrong.

But as more and more material from local government press departments is used  use un-mediated by millions of people how do we guarantee the quality of this information?

So now is not the time for government to stifle council communications teams. Now is the time to ask if we have the right editorial guidelines for council press officers and communications departments. Let us instead ensure  every single one is a centre of excellence for plentiful, high quality and easily re-usable public information.

We already have at least one model for using public money to pay public servants to create content for the public good. It’s called the BBC. This is based on the rather clumsy notion of impartiality. The new model should be built on guarantee of quality that comes with transparency.

Any comments you make below will be posted, by Paul, through to the enquiry. Others in the series include:

Alex Lockwood on “The impact of newspaper closures on independent local journalism and access to local information”

Adrian Monck on “The opportunities and implications of BBC partnerships with Local Media”

Paul Bradshaw also on “Should Councils Publish Newspapers”

Don't tell the COI but every government news stream now has it's own twitter account.

Posted on 24th April 2009 by

Some of you will have mixed feelings about this but every major news feed out of the UK government now has it’s own twitter account. What’s interesting about this is the whole process is unofficial.  I’ve no doubt Tom Watson will be delighted, but what will the COI make of this unofficial use of information?  -They’re already working on improving websites, hopefully they will understand this as an improvement in their web presence.

I’m going to quote Geof Cole, who has done this deed:

The Central Office of Information run a rather good website called the News Distribution Service, formerly the Government News Network. Below the fold are the RSS and Twitter feeds in three groups – aggregate, departmental and regional.

Unfortunately, no-one knows about it as the COI doesn’t do much to promote it despite being “the Government’s centre of excellence for marketing and communications”. It consists of news updates for all the big bits of government – departments, agencies and regions – that you could want. It’s a good way of keeping an eye on what they’re all up to an finding the occasional hidden gem of a press release. They’ve had RSS feeds for ages and now they’re on Twitter (thanks to yours truly).

I do hope someone in government picks up the admin for this. If you want to see a full list of the feeds, including your regional one, then here’s a link to Geoff’s blog.

Update, others on this:

Neil Williams: “It’s likely there will be lots of crossover between Dave’s NDS-fuelled feeds and these civil servant powered accounts, so choose wisely which to follow. The human-edited tweets will offer more than just press releases but they might also be selective about the news they deem tweet-worthy.”