Fogged in after the Govis 2007 conference

Govis bottle opener key-ringMy mind is a bit foggy after three days in the sheltered conference land of government information system managers, IT policy makers and techies. And no, it’s not due to repeated use of the key ring pictured.

I’m foggy because of the hyping of Web 2.0 and too much riskease. Murky from the vendors touting expensive stacks of technology designed to solve all our problems and more. Eyes glazed over from existing in a bubble where interacting with technology means everything. Fazed-out as I mull over whether I’ve really learnt anything at the 2007 Govis conference.

Softly spoken tehno-vangelist Jon Udell talked about emplowering the ‘ordinary’ citizen to use “web 2.0 apps”. I hope he admits to not being a regular computer guy. He’s very skilled, has all the techy gear (though I read he had his camera stolen on his way from New Hampshire to Aotearoa), is well connected and recently joined Microsoft. He’s part of the tech-elite so I have to wonder if his enthusiasm doesn’t overwhelm what is achieveable for Josephine Public.

Udell’s ideas seemed like something he strayed upon casually just a few weeks ago. One project followed extraordinary flooding in his neighbourhood in Keene. Jon said he was quickly on the scene and recorded on video what he was witnessing. He posted this, and later made an online movie (called a screencast) mixing a voice-over, video and maps from Google earth. The story he tells of the Keene flood is a very localised, but it’s made a bigger splash via an interview on the local public radio about what he’d done online (read and hear about it at “On the Web – A New View of the Flood”) and approaches from authorities wanting his raw video footage to assist with future planning.

Other examples he talked about included sharing citizen views of the current New Hampshire presidential primaries (see “Note to State: Earn Your First in the Nation Status“), pressuring a local school board to share student progress using an online application called PowerSchool by showing how the application would benefit parents (see PowerSchool screencast), and citizens republishing raw crime data from the Department of Justice in meaningful ways.

Despite the deceptive simplicity of the examples Jon shared it looks like lot of tech skills and motivation are required. Although 69% of New Zealander have been online in the last year, I’m not sure how many would go to exploiting such powerful tools. Jon didn’t talk much about how such skills could be transferred. However, unless some conscious efforts are made the divides on the internet will broaden further as the tech-elite empower themselves, while other citizens miss out.

A different tack on citizen action came from Tara Hunt, aka Citizen Rogue (or was it rouge for the colour she brought to the conference). Tara is co-founder of Citizen Agency where she is a community builder for the open source community based in San Francisco. She took us on a blinding tour of a citizen-centric, non-instutitional approach to reshaping e-government for the future (see her presentation Goverment 2.0).

More than once over during her stay Tara enthused about Barcamps. My experience has been that people working in grassroots movements first meet face-to-face first then use email, blogs, etc, to stay in touch. In a lovely reversal, Barcamps are gatherings for people working on open source coding and other IT projects whose communication until recently was typically only in the virtual world. The novelty of Barcamps is people meeting face-to-face. The events are self organising conferences (using an open space style approach) and proving wildly popular, with xx run around the globe since the first one in Paola Alto, California in August 2005.

One example Tara shared of this model of organising crossing over into the world of officialdom was the Toronto Transit Camp. Earlier this year self-proclaimed geeks met to re-design the official Toronto public transport website, describing the approach as being as “a solution playground, not a complaints department”. The result was advice willingly received by Transit Toronto corporation. The event hints at the potential for alternative models of organising to be introduced to promote citizen participation. It would be a pretty scary approach for most public sector IT managers who I suspect would prefer to retain control over promoting participation. Tara’s message is be brave and collaborate.

Blogging will be added to the list of tools used by New Zealand civil servants if panelists on a session on blogging in public service had their way. The panelists from the State Services Commission, Department of Labour and Ministry of Education had experience blogging in a personal capacity, but not within or for their organisations. The number of examples of blogging currently underway within New Zealand government was very, very short (only one currently online actually, Lively on the government’s cultural events website, nzlive.com). The panel about blogging is just about the only session I’ve seen mentioned in the press since the conference (see the Dominion Post 14 May 2007 “Everyone’s blogging, why can’t we”).

This is my take on the conference (aside from the yarns over the tea cups and some suggestions for additions to The Couch which I won’t go into). Despite the optimism, especially for citizens using web 2.0 tools to create change, I am left with a feeling of discomfort about the technocratic framework within which government IT is discussed. Yes, there was mention made of privacy and some ethical concerns but the tenor of the conference boosting technology (in way not to dissimilar to other IT conferences I suspect). Tara Hunt’s admonition – made in Maori learnt a day before her presentation – to recognise the importance of people is a reminder to set technology in its social context. It’s only now, with the fog lifting, that I’m beginning to see this more clearly.

NB All of the conference presentations are available online in Windows Media Player format with slideshows, see the Govis Richmedia website. You need Internet Explorer and broadband to view the media files without frustration. My presentation “Families on The Couch: heading online to hear to from New Zealand families” is available, or you can see a version with slides at www.slideshare.net/sablyth/families-on-the-couch/.

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