As part of our work engaging potential Friends of The Federation we’ve been working with the wonderful folk in Northcoders. We really wanted them as part of our community because they are such a fit with our ethical values. In learning more about what they do one of their founders James Brooke explained that every cohort they offer two free places to women because they are committed to diversity and changing the ratio #womenintech
Northcoders offer two #womenintech scholarships but there’s a limit to what they are able to do themselves. Which begged the question how many women had applied and were eligible for the course? Turns out they had applications from 20 women which means 18 suitable candidates in Manchester losing out on an amazing opportunity. That’s 18 new women software developers into the tech ecosystem. That’s an opportunity to act that does not come around that often. What if we could make that scale?
In the recent past I worked as an Associate with EY supporting the EY Women Fast Forward programme so I pinged an email to the amazing Uschi Schreiber EY's Global Vice Chair, Markets. It was a simple email. It said “there are 18 women in Manchester qualified to take a course to turn them into software developers, they need some funding can you help”? Two days later I got a response from her “Love this idea. Need to figure out how to support. Give me a day or two”.
And sure enough after two days Gemma Williams who works with Uschi messaged me saying “it’s a go we’ll fund six of them”. Just like that. Typically in big organizations it takes months to get a decision. There is all sorts of bureaucracy to navigate, all sorts of stakeholders who need to get involved. By recognizing the need, by understanding the importance of helping women, by understanding that Northcoders are a young company and by actually “DOING” Uschi and EY have done an amazing thing that will make a genuine impact exactly where we need it most. Giving women the opportunity to enter the technology community gaining employment in a city where 40% of our population are under the poverty line. EY have now committed to funding for this on an annual basis. And so in case you are wondering - this is what leadership looks like.
So we moved to Manchester over the weekend and have been exploring this lovely city lots. We knew of course that it would take some time before we sorted our broadband in the apartment. So I'm completely reliant on my mobile. I'm using personal hotspot to tether and we even managed to catch up with some TV on Netflix using my O2 package. Great.
Then yesterday my signal fell out completely. I mean TOTALLY. No texting calls or surfing. MMMM I thought after two hours there must be an outage. Since my hubby was in London I couldn't use his phone and that's when the fun started. So having turned the phone on and off a gazillion times, removing the battery and the SIM still dead as a dodo I find myself loitering around the Revolution Pub near us to log onto their free wifi so I can at least text my better half to let him know what's up.
It's a lovely place. They are lovely people. Is it the kind of place a fifty something woman shiftily trying to access the wifi should be hanging out at 10.30 at night. Nope. Tramped back to apartment and then spent about 2 hours trying to access any of the WIFI networks around me frantically trying to guess passwords. People have gotten much better at hard passwords. That's good. But not for me. I finally accepted it an evening disconnected from the world. To bed and hopefully situation resolved tomorrow.
The alarm goes off at 7.30 and I reach for the phone. STILL NO SIGNAL. Right then too early for 02 shop to open I find the nearest place with free WiFi (Mc Donald's) settle down with a McMuffin and start the web chat with the O2 live web chat service. And very good they were. Within five minutes of hand holding the operative tells me that someone identifying themselves as me has answered all the security questions and reported my phone stolen. Hence 02 shutting everything down. That's good. So I think right I'll just get another temporary SIM while I wait 24 HOURS before service is restored. (In fairness it was back within 6 - thank you 02). So down to the shop where the lovely Lisa sells me a Pay As You Go SIM and a Dongle so that I can connect to my laptop - Hurrah problem sorted.
Back at the apartment I thought I'd try the SIM/Dongle laptop first. Nope! can't use that since I have to have a password to verify and in order to do that I have to log on. Ok I'll use the temporary SIM in the phone and verify online there. NOPE! STILL NO SERVICE. Sigh.
Tramp back down to the store where the fantastic Lisa tells me after looking at my phone that everything is locked down including the phone so I can't use the temporary SIM. You can tell what I'm like at this stage. Fearing armagaddon Lisa quietly suggests that for £9.99 I can buy a cheap phone to use the SIM. She also tells me that if I round it up to £10.00 the extra penny will go to charity. What are the chances I'm going to say no. She's really kind. She gets the phone and puts the SIM in in while the equally lovely Paul tries to sort the other SIM for the Dongle. And then she hands it to me......
Words fail me. I mean really fail me. I'm prodding and poking at the screen. Lisa is looking at me very sympathetically. I appreciate that especially since she's wearing some sort of Ghostbusters back pack that's twice the size of her. That must be hard. Anyway. "YOU. NEED. TO. PRESS. THE. BUTTONS" she says very slowly like people do when they think people don't speak English. She's like a reverse Digital Native. She goes off to get the bill and I turn to Paul. He puts his hands in the air as if to say "beyond me". "I might kill someone if I have to use this" I say. By the time I leave the shop I've only managed to text my husband Tony (now in contacts as TO!NKY as its some kind of weird predictive text thingy and an interface worse than SKY TV) with one word "Me".
Thankfully by the time I eventually get back to the apartment my contract service is restored. This is good. What is less good is the gazillion texts from my Bank to tell me about all the unauthorized transactions on my account. Whoever worked out the 02 hack has had a merry spending spree and my bank account is considerably lighter. Thankfully their fraud people are brilliant and I'll get it back. But it's a lesson learned. For all my knowledge about technology I'm as laissez fair as most around passwords and have realized why my mother has such difficulties using the phone she has. Older and more vulnerable people should be given access to the best technology not the cheapest. Alcatel One Touch - One Touch? My ass
I moved to London from Ireland in 2005 at the dying end of the Celtic Tiger and just before the seismic economic shocks really hit. Over the course of the successive years I've had many occasions to thank London for the wonderful city that it is. I've met the most incredible people and through them stretched myself intellectually and creatively. I've had the opportunity to be at the forefront of the global emergent open data movement and I've been given the most amazing career opportunities that would never have been there for me in Ireland. I've relished its wonderful architecture and fantastic culture and I've seen my son grow from boy to man. But now its time for a new chapter which is why I'm moving to Manchester to be part of a city that is exploring things that have become more important to me over time. Over those London years I've seen the adoption of technology accelerate to the point where it is ubiquitous in so any peoples lives. While I've marveled at the amazing businesses have emerged from the ever increasing mountains of data that we are all producing, somewhere along the line different questions have started to niggle at the corner of my mind. I've tried to articulate those questions in a series of blogs and talks under the title of #Technoethics but in short a key question for me is to whom are the benefits of the digital economy really accruing?
When we talk about the "sharing economy" what do we really mean? Because it's not really sharing when vast amounts of capital benefit the tiny few at the top of the technology triangle. And what of the future of work with the unstoppable rise of robotics and automation? Those who mourn for the days of our manufacturing past believing that a vote to leave the EU might usher it back are trying to solve the wrong problem. We are in fact looking at a future where much of our labour will not be required at all - and how do we plan for that? This is not a purely economic question as to how people will provide for themselves. When meaningful, work provides a powerful sense of social reinforcement and identity , that's part of the social glue that keeps society together.
We need to move away from a winner takes all mentality in the digital economy and look to the redistribution of digital dividends. We need new generations of digital founders who are designing equity and ethics into the DNA of their businesses. We need to move from platform capitalism to what Trebor Scholz calls platform cooperativism and we need to co-create our future.
What happenstance then that Mike Bracken and other amazing former colleagues from Government Digital Service have started a new digital transformation journey with the Co Op in Manchester. With a vision to "re-create the Co Operative for a digital era and demonstrate a different way of doing business for an increasingly connected community". That seemed to me the perfect place to explore some of my niggling questions further in the company of colleagues inspired to make a real difference to society.
So my husband Tony and I are leaving London and moving to Manchester and that's where you'll find me mostly. While working with Co Op I'll also continue with my commitments to the EY Women Fast Forward programme and with my NED commitments to TransportAPI and Sh:24 and of course in my role as the Chairperson of the Open Data Governance Board in Ireland. I'm looking forward to learning about all the great things that Manchester has to offer (loving getting the tram to work!) and also being able to work more closely with my fellow Board Members in Future Everything.
So if you are in Manchester and want to meet to talk tech, data and ethics please get in touch. I'm looking forward to lots of conversations in the coming months and to hearing views about how Co Op can both make its own unique contribution while being a good neighbour and friend to the existing technology community.
Over the past couple of months I've been working as an Associate with EY London and I've visited some lovely places but definitely Gleneagles has joined the list of up there places to visit. Spectacular surroundings (though I passed on the golf). I was there with HarryGaskell EY's Chief Innovation Officer for their annual Scottish Finance Directors Forum to talk digital disruption and what it means for Finance Directors. It's a sign of the times that the discussion was really engaged and interactive as professionals from all parts of the business are beginning to grapple with the reality and threat of things like robotics and automation.
I talked about digital transformation in the context of government and shared the GDS values which underpinned our philosophy for achieving change:
Digital by default
But the one I emphasized most was the need to enable technology leaders to flourish. A lot of senior management in large organizations can feel threatened by digital (particularly if they are not adopters themselves) and tend to slio the CTO or Chief Digital Officer to the "tech" part of the business. Which is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of technology and its wide reach across ALL of the business. So I asked how many of the participants had a CTO or CDO at board level and very few did.
I also showed them a photo of a then 19 year old Jordan Hatch (pic on left) a former colleague of mine in GDS who now advises the Australian government on digital strategy (pic on right Jordan now) and warned them not to have a stereotype about what future technology leaders look like cos they won't look like what you are used to.
Harry walked through the field of disruption citing lots of threats envisaged for core EY business across Advisory, Taxation and Audit and shared how he is dealing with this in EY - so good to see example of such a large organization eating its own dog food and planning for a very different future. What does audit look like in the era of blockchain or advisory in the era of hugely sophisticated data analytics? He posed some good and challenging question to the audience such as:
And just one additional fact about Gleneagles if you are an Art Deco fan (which I so am) then you'll love it there see snapshot of ballroom roof and one of the beautiful hallways (I want those lamps!)
I'm a huge fan of HBO's Silicon Valley and have lost count of the number of times when sitting on the couch with my husband I've turned to him pointing at the TV shrieking "totally! that's so totally what it's like" So I was very much looking forward to the release of Disrupted My Misadventure in the Start Up Bubble by Dan Lyons who is one of the writers for the HBO series. The excerpts that I'd read online were genuinely hilarious and there is more fun to be had in the book but what I didn't expect was how poignant it would be. While Lyon's description of working in HubSpot and the trials of trying to become more HubSpotty is truly funny it's his description of what led him to work there and the pressures and reality of the digital economy that make for reflective reading.
A journalist with a fine track record and many years experience he is suddenly and rather brutally let go from his job at Newsweek and finds himself at 50 unemployed with his family to support. This puts him under tremendous stress and the ensuring pressures on his family seep through the pages of the book. It's hard not to actually feel the nightsweats he endures fretting whether he will ever be employed again given the parlous state of the media industry. And its an interesting insight into how his profession has changed so profoundly in the digital age. But he's also torn between a sense of righteous indignation at the number of young, swaggering boy-mentrepreneurs who have made millions from their tech companies and products and wanting to have a slice of that action himself. Hence the decision to join Hub Spot hopeful that a promised IPO will give him some juicy returns. So while the book is fun its also a serious and honest account of signing a deal with the devil until the deal is no longer bearable and his integrity is compromised more than he is prepared to allow.
Lyon's isn't looking for sympathy but he is calling out Silicon Valley not just as the geographical area but for a mindset that is now so pervasive in the technology sector. He is asking some serious questions about the morality of these companies who can raise vast oceans of money, while simultaneously losing oodles of that cash, making huge profits for themselves and then going for IP0's at which point the reality of the company finances become clear. But by then no one cares because of course the VC's and founders have cashed in their investment for massive personal profit. But what of the workers who made this happen?
According to Lyons, on the day that HubSpot achieved its IPO, the CTO was suddenly worth nearly $70 million. When asked by reporters on the stock exchange floor if he had anything to say to the folks back in the home office he answered by looking into the camera and saying "Get back to work". Back at the ranch the staff each got a mini bottle of Freixenet Brut with a HubSpot logo while Penny the receptionist, checked their names off a list so nobody could duck back and grab a second bottle. It would be funny if it wasn't so tragic.
Bill Gurleys great analysis Why the Unicorn Financing Market Just Became Dangerous…For All Involved supports much of what Lyon's is talking about. His point that "achieving profitability is the most liberating action a startup can accomplish" is particularly pertinent. If we are to change the current MO then we need to start building real and sustainable digital businesses shifting from a winner takes all to an equitable distribution of digital dividends. And we need to look at the ethical underpinnings of our companies in terms of what I'm calling TechnoEthics, something I spoke about recently at the Hadoop Summit in Dublin .
That's certainly what we are trying to do in my company TransportAPI . We've benefited from two rounds of Angel investment from a considerate and ethical Angel investor and rather than burning through at the fastest rate possible we've tried to balance that with building sustainable revenue streams that will create value and employment. And we've grown at our own pace from 3 to 11 by concentrating not on madly talking up the company with the usual tedious hubris, but by refining and developing our technology to best in class and paying reasonable salaries. We're concentrating on being really useful to our clients and developer community getting to break even and creating more employment in the UK when we can.
Lyon's calling out of the ageism in Silicon Valley (read tech community) really struck a chord and I was reminded of a visit that our Founder Jonathan Raper and I made to a young tech firm who were a client of ours. Johnathon and I are both in our fifties (proudly sporting quite an amount of gray hair between us) with a proven track record across academia, government and the private sector. As we sat in the brightly coloured room room with that young company it was clear that we were being treated with the kind of respect you accord your grandparents - with ever so slightly a touch of "aaah, cute innit it to see old people in tech". It was only when we sat on the Tube together heading back to our offices that we both without even saying anything burst out laughing and it felt great to have strength in numbers something that was not there for Dan Lyons during his time at HubSpot. But then we're lucky we're building a business that's about sustainability and inclusivity but also one that values wisdom as well as youth it feels like the right way to go for us. I hope more digital companies will come to the same conclusion.
Last year I visited Uber HQ in London . It was one of those really, really hot London summer days. As I arrived at the office I noticed a rather long line of men outside the building waiting in the blazing sun. As I went inside and upstairs to where the real Uber staff worked behind their lovely Apple Macs I couldn’t help wondering why there were no comfortable waiting facilities for the drivers. Thinking about it afterwards of course it was clear. The Uber staff are employees and the drivers well they are just commodities.
I don’t intend to go into the many many things that are wrong with Uber as a company (just search #ubered on Twitter for a second by second ribbon of stories) but it did get me thinking about a quote from Steven Hill’s book Raw Deal that:
“Technology has been granted a privileged and indulged place where the usual rules, laws and policies often are not applied”.
Are we so in love with the concept of disruption as a force for good that we cannot see what is happening right in front of us? While Airbnb is touted as the little man or woman making some extra money on the side the reality is that almost 80% of the revenues are generated by corporate landlords and multiple hosts.
And while we might be in love with the idea of disintermediation, cutting out the middle man and getting that super cheap room, what we are really dealing with there is disintermediation of the planning system. This is impacting both the availability of scarce rental housing in cities all over the world while also impacting on residential property owners who might reasonably expect some protection from their local authority planners who have zoned areas for residential and not tourist purposes.
Don’t get me wrong I’m not against anyone earning some money from short term room lets, I’m against the disingenuous description of what is actually going on and the use by companies like Airbnb and Uber of their selected users to create outcrys against any form of regulation. It speaks to a terrific quote by danah boyd speaking about the tech industry generally:
“They fight as though they are insurgents while they operate as though they are kings”.
Why are all the lessons we learned from almost thirty years of Corporate Social Responsibility policies being so easily forgotten? Does it sit comfortably with you as a user of Facebook that content moderation is outsourced? Not of course undertaken by real Facebook staff who benefited from what was then the highest IPO for a tech company on Wall Street but by workers in developing countries who get $1 dollar an hour for this horrific work?
It’s like there is a sewer
channel and all of the
of the world flow
and you have to clean it.” Facebook Moderator Phillipines
Is it right that over 500,000 million Asians disparagingly referred to as “Chinese Gold Farmers” are forced to sit in 12 hour shifts obsessively playing Massive Multiplayer Online Games to earn tokens to be traded offline receiving 30p an hour for their endeavours? When companies who trade these virtual goods are generating such huge profits? We need to redefine what is value and production what is profit and play if play is understood to be entered into freely for its own sake standing entirely apart from real life.
If we look again at our understanding of production and value do we need to redefine what we mean? Let’s compare how Marx defined production and see how it applies to something like - well Gmail.
Does a worker in a cotton factory produce only cotton? No. He produces capital. He produces values which serve anew to command his work and to create by means of it new values. ( Karl Marx 1891)
When you send an email are you only corresponding? No. You are producing capital. They derive value (data) which serve anew to command your activities and to create by means of it new values.
(Emer Coleman 2016)
Every keystroke we make, every email we send and receive, makes us not just service users but in this context workers yet we do not benefit in any way that we understand we might as employees. Yet that’s exactly what we are, we are all shadow employees for Facebook, Google, Twitter and the myriad of other digital companies that we use. And let’s not go there with the “Sharing Economy”, I shared my pictures with Instagram they didn’t share their $1 billion loot.
This might not matter too much now but with the rise of robotics and automation and the hollowing out of middle class jobs that will surely follow how will we really feel about the yawning gap that is opening up between capital and labour? If in the US the decade between 2000 and 2010 was the first in US history that saw no job growth whatsoever is it any wonder that the likes of Donald Trump are beginning to resonate with those the economy has swept aside?
This is no longer about Engineering it’s about Social Engineering something we should surely be deeply concerned about because a key prerequisite for social engineering is having:
A body of reliable information about the society that is to be engineered and effective tools to carry out the engineeringWell how about this for a start for that required body of reliable information?
Concepts and topics discussed in email,
as well as email attachments
The content of websites that users have visited
Demographic information — including
income, sex, race, marital status
Psychographic information —
personality type, values, attitudes, interests,
and lifestyle interests
Previous searches users have made
Information about documents a user
viewed and or edited by the users
Which we signed away in perpetuity to Google for the use of Gmail and for which we got in return a gigabyte of storage which even at that early stage only cost Google $2 per gigabyte per year. Have we no worries really about the current and future uses of our data - it’s time in my view to renegotiate the contract.
As Tom Steinberg writes so well in his Manifesto for Public Technology:
If we are going to limit and control the activities of digital companies then a new class of public servants are going to have to be trained up to do that work.But it’s not just regulators and public officials who will need to completely change their approaches and skills what of our responsibilities in this regard? Do we as users have no consumer power? Or no responsibility to begin redefining what we mean by Corporate Social Responsibility in a digital age? Are we to remain silent as shadow employees of The Social Factory where there are no longer clear boundaries between work and play, where even as we play and use social media we are nought but worker drones?
We need to talk Techno Ethics and we need to act because our future is being designed around and to us. The new public servants are not those who work for government only but those who are willing to develop policy for the real and the virtual world. Society no longer stands apart from Cyber Society so where lies democracy in this brave new world and what are we going to do about it? I don’t know the answer but I know we can do better but only if we make our voices heard.
I was absolutely delighted to be asked to participate in the Abbey Theatre of Change Symposium which took place in Dublin from the 21st to 23rd January. This is the third and final international symposium and follows the hugely successful Theatre of Memory and Theatre of War series both of which questioned the role of commemoration, the nature of conflict and the danger of national narratives.
The Theatre of Change Symposium is the start of the Waking the Nation season and its primary focus was examining the responsibility of citizens to engage with issues of the near future and the role of artists to shape it. It was without doubt one of the most extraordinary events that I have been involved with for a long time. Day 2 where I was speaking kicked off with Irish artist Jackie Irvine talking about her novel Days of Surrender. The book's starting point is a very rare photograph that shows the feet of Elizabeth O'Farrell midwife and 1916 volutneer who had been asked to make a perilous walk from Dublins General Post Office down the sniper-lined streets to act as an agent of negotiation for the formal surrender to the British Army. Poking out from behind the figure of Padraic Pearse (leader of the Irish Volunteers) Elizabeths feet are clearly visible in the picture but all subsequent publications of the image include doctored versions where the feet are removed and with it the trace of a woman's presence and resistance to the British state. It was fascinating to hear Jaki narrate the literal erasure of the role of Irish women in this important moment in the history of the state.
I followed Jaki with a session called Big Data: Owning Your Own Story looking at content in the digital age and told some stories about my previous life in the arts in Ireland in the 1980's no trace of which remains because all events occurred before the creation of the Internet. Describing myself as a ghost in the machine in the Irish arts landscape of the 80's I tried to stress the importance of all of our creative stories being available to ensure we have a complete history or our collective creative contributions. Judging from the Twitter responses from the audience, largely theatre and visual arts practictioners, as well as regular Abbey audience members, what resonated most was my comment:
Author Andrew O'Hagan followed with a brilliant tour de force Stealing Lives: Does Your Story Belong To You? which interrogated what it means to be a writer, the ethical challenges when writing about real people or when writing about members of families including your own. It provided a wonderful insight into the mind of a writer who has explored the issue of identity in some quite challenging and interesting ways.
Theatre director Zoe Lafferty talked about Theatre, Resistance and Change sharing her experience of working as a director in Afghanistan, Yemen, Palenstine, Syria, Haiti and Lebanon. Her recounting of working with the Palestine Freedom Theatre had the audience spellbound as had the notion of using culture as a form of resistance. Often artists explore these issues but rarely place themselves in the site of actual danger. It was captivating, challenging and humbling to hear her talk about how theatre and storytelling can challenge the status quo, expose human rights violations and tell the human perspective behind war one that is often misrepresented in the media.
Israeli journalist and author Gideon Levy had the audience on their feet for a sustained standing ovation for his talk The Israeli Society And The Endless Occupation. His was a bleak view about what the future holds for both Israel and Palestine but what captivated the audience most I think was his 30 year career calling Israel to account for the Palestinian plight. Nearly every week for three decades, he has travelled to the Occupied Territories and described what he sees, plainly and without propaganda. “My modest mission,” he says, “is to prevent a situation in which many Israelis will be able to say, ‘We didn’t know.’” And for that, many people want him silenced. He pointed to a "moral blindness" on the part of Israelis which allows them to ignore the pain and suffering of the Palestinian people. It was an exceptional display of moral courage and integrity speaking truth to power without fear of personal repercussions of which there are many.
But for me, the highlight of the day was the presentation by Dr Emer O Toole and Dr Susan Cahill in what was both an entertaining and profound 45 minutes. Their talk/performance The Man Problem was brilliantly framed by legal affairs editor Derbhail McDonald who brought the audience through the 30 year heartache of the abortion "situation" in Ireland. For readers not familiar with this tragic terrain the tldr version is this. Over 30 years ago in Ireland we had a referendum. We agreed to allow abortions where it was proven that the life of the mother was at risk. But in a typical Irish solution to an Irish problem we failed to legislate and the successive years have seen nothing but trouble and heartache. Emer and Susan are part of a campaign to repeal the eight amendment to the Irish constitution. In a very clever presentation Emer kicked off using a male persona on stage to model the usual stereotypical male approaches but making the important point that women get pregnant not men - yet our almost entirely male decisions makers are the only voices that are heard on the topic. Their clever slide made this point eloquently.
But it was Susan stepping forward to take the mic to talk about her own abortion that really drove the point home. Stories are a powerful way of helping us reach consensus, developing empathy even when we hold differing points of view. But there are few stories about abortions in Ireland because women cannot speak out. So it was the first time I have ever heard a young Irish woman describe why she had an abortion, how she felt and how the eight amendment makes her feel about her relationship with her own country. It was certainly a first for a woman on the stage of the National Theatre to declare that deeply personal experience to the world. "I don't fee shame. None" she said. It was just fantastic to demonstrate that kind of courageous leadership creating spaces for other women to find their voices. Because when it comes to abortion it is not male voices that should have the mic because it's women who need to be centre stage on that issue. I applaud both Emer and Susan on their courage and I'll follow their work with keen interest from the other side of the pond.
And in a lovely final piece of serendipity we got to share our taxi to the airport with the amazingly interesting Penny Arcade and talked all the way about the intersection of art and technology and the future of our world. As you do.
I was delighted to chair the inaugural meeting of the Open Data Governance Board in Dublin last Tuesday. It was great that Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin TD, was able to join us to outline his views on the importance of open data as a key element of the Irish Government's Reform Agenda.
Head of the Open Data Unit, Evelyn O'Connor, gave the Board a comprehensive background briefing on the progress made to date as well as the challenges facing the Irish public service in delivering open data that meets real user needs. I followed that with a short summary of my thoughts fairly self explanatory from the presentation below.
Full summary of the meeting here and agreed next steps. For the next few months I'll be managing the Twitter account
So get in touch if you'd like to talk to me about open data in Ireland or you can email me at email@example.com
I’ve ben following the #wakingthefeminists debate in Ireland which was the social media response to the recent announcement of The Abbey Theatre 2016 Programme which, unfortunately, had only one play written by a woman of the ten plays programmed in total. I’ll raise my hand here and declare that I am an old friend of the Artistic Director Fiach MacConghail and given the activity on Twitter had reason to remember that I’d been the person who suggested he should join the platform several years ago.
I work with a lot of senior people around digital literacy some of which includes encouraging them to use social media to provide more open leadership. A key sign of course of whether they get it or not is how they behave when things don’t go as they might have liked. Do they stay open and accessible? Or do they suddenly become silent? So the debate was a testing one in this regard and I think it is to his credit that Fiach did not become suddenly incommunicado. I was also struck by the differences in the arts and culture sector and the gaming/tech sector. In the latter women who declare themselves feminists or express forcible options become the subject of horrendous abuse and trolling as evidenced by the whole #gamergate saga something that was covered in last years brilliant Inspirefest and which I wrote about in my blog Stamping Feet of Social Sword. While I’m sure there has been some negative feedback to the women participating in the campaign, what’s been amazing to see has been the open solidarity expressed around the world by so many women for Irish women playwrights and the need for greater gender parity in the arts.
Today Minister Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in Ireland, announced the make up of the newly established Open Data Governance Board with responsibility for advising the Irish Government on its national strategy for open data. I’m absolutely delighted that I’ve been asked to chair the board in the company of a group of very able and talented board members.
Since leaving Ireland in 2005 most of my work has been concentrated in the UK and other countries so I very much welcome and am excited about the opportunity to be able to bring home the experience that I’ve gained in the field of open data and innovation. As part of my work setting up The London Datastore when working for the Mayor of London in the GLA, and indeed in my regular work in my own SME TransportAPI, I’ve seen first hand the innovation and economic stimulus that can happen when public bodies make their data open for reuse by third parties. But I’ve also gained lots of experience about the difficulties that public bodies face in dealing with the challenges of data release some of which stems from the nature of risk averse organisations that can struggle with the demands of a digital economy that require an open data national digital infrastructure and their own risk averse structures. This is nothing new. It reflects the difficulties that all bureaucracies have in moving from command and control models to becoming full members of a networked society.
Ireland has already made good strides in its open data journey with the establishment of its open data portal and regionally with the establishment of Dublinlinked and the forerunner of all of them through the work of Dominic Byrne with the establishment of the first Irish local government data portal Open Data Fingal. I take particular pleasure in the existence of the latter given my previous role as Communications Manager for that authority.
But as we look forward it is also worth looking back and my touchstone for open data has always been and remains the three laws of open data as articulated by Canadian open data activist David Eaves.
If it can’t be spidered or indexed, it doesn’t exist
While it would be wrong of me to dictate the direction of travel without the collaboration of my fellow Board Members I would like to flag from the outset that a primary focus for me personally will be to understand how many of the datasets currently released in Ireland meet these conditions. One of the key things that I took from the technology community in London when we asked them what should we do about releasing open data in London was their suggestion to “Go Ugly Early” meaning to release what data sets we could without worrying too much about their quality. At the time they told me “as long as they are not PDF just release and we can fix as we go along”. That was very valuable advice at the time for two important reasons. (a) it allowed the open data movement in London to achieve momentum without too many arguments about formats. (b) it suggested a collaborative way of working note the use of the word “we” i.e. government and civil society (the latter represented by civic activists and hackers) working together. Another way of looking at this is “good enough beats perfect” so I guess what I’m saying here is that one of the ambitions of the Open Data Governance Board will be to ensure that in the first instance what we have is good enough and that we provide the leadership in time to make things perfect for the entrepreneurial community who are the primary users of this data in the first instance.
The second and equally important element of open data is of course accountability and transparency. We live in an era when trust in institutions is low and the release of open public data can be a part of the restoration of that trust. In 1913 Louis Brandeis, then a member of the US Supreme Court, dubbed “the people’s lawyer” because of his work on free legal aid coined the phrase “sunlight is the best disinfectant”. While not all citizens (and I include myself in that) may be able to understand and wrangle with large datasets filled with numbers and statistics the willingness of government to release its data for public scrutiny and debate has to be the cornerstone of any modern democracy.
Ireland is part of a global moment in this regard with initiatives such as Code for All Ireland which was influenced by the excellent work started by Code for America. In our networked world we are lucky to be able to connect over social media to our open government partners worldwide and of course our membership of the Open Government Partnership provides further resources from which we can draw.
I hope that the establishment of the Open Data Governance Board will give new impetus to the open data movement in Ireland and to the emerging players in civil society who have so much to bring to the table. As they say in Ireland “Come One Come All”. I look forward to the lively and innovative discussions ahead and to the wise counsel that will come not just from my fellow Board Members but from those in the open data community interested in how the release of open data can achieve its twin aims of accountability and transparency and the economic stimulus that can contribute to the further economic recovery of the country.