I started my career in the arts. It wasn’t planned it was serendipity. During my secondary school years I spent my summers learning how to type (having aspirations to journalism I thought it would be a useful skill). My first job was as administrator for a small theatre company (now sadly defunct) and I got the job because the woman who ran the business school where I learned to type was married to a man called Jerry who had a company called Irish Business Systems. The Artistic Director of Cork Theatre Company was buying a new PC and asked Jerry if his wife might know someone who would make a good administrator. Jerry gave him my name and before I knew it there I was in a world about which I knew nothing (my typing prowess was undisputed).
The last place you want to be a greenhorn is in the arts. They can be mean. Shortly after I started I remember being in the pub with a group of actors when I said “I saw this weird film last night called The Birthday Party has anyone heard of it”? Que much eyeball rolling and sniggering. “It’s by Pinter darling, don’t you know”.
The arts is largely a closed world possibly the last bastion of the tyranny of the expert. Try to democratize and you are accused of “dumbing down” but why should the arts be exempt from the changes happening elsewhere to all business models? Because if technology is rewiring our brains , if we the web kids have a different outlook, does it not stand to reason that their modes of consumption for cultural products will also change?
will.i.am gave a brilliant talk in 2012 at the Royal College of Art for their annual Innovation Night (you can watch it here and suggested how three year olds are going to connect with paintings (skip to 34.31 in the video for that particular section) in the future wanting to swipe the canvas in the same way they do their ipads saying “hey this don’t even work” and I have a strong suspicion that he is absolutely right about that. The role of the curator in this new world surely demands new approaches?
I can’t see the “I pick what I think has value, or beauty, or worth. I mount it for your consumption and expect your gratitude for my erudite skills” as a sustainable approach for the future. Look up synonmys for “Curator” and this is what you get - custodian - keeper - trustee - guardian – conservator – which seems like remarkably closed terms.
So what about the role of open data in the arts – where are those open box office records for all of the subsidized theatre venues in the UK so we can see in transparent ways what the pattern of national cultural consumption looks like? Would it not assist those running the venues to see what “product” (also a verboten word in the arts) gains traction and what does not?
This is not to suggest that by interrogating open arts data you would simply attempt to recreate ad nauseum what is popular (god forbid) but you might at least get a better sense of what people really enjoy and iterate more challenging and diverse work by knowing better what emotional ties draw audiences to one product or another (that is of course if you accept the premise that work should be challenging and diverse). And opening up arts data for scrutiny is no different to the arguments about open data generally. The state has paid for it, it belongs to us and the arts is no different to any other sector in that regard.
Patterns of audience consumption and preference are important elements in programming but yet these remain closed the property of the arts council, venue managers and artistic directors. Would it be so challenging to open the treasure trove up to other creative outside the system? To enable third parties to innovate and interrogate and enable others through their work join in the conversation?
Should we not all be allowed the opportunity to synthesise, mash up and create? Are we not the custodians of our own culture? We create the data by voting with our feet and applause should we be denied access to it?
And what about the definition of culture or art are these not subject to change in a world where technology is redefining so much? I remember the tedious debates about whether photography was or wasn’t “Art” just like I remember the time when entry into the world of film was limited to those who could afford the means of production like an actual video camera. If you look up synonyms for “Art” you get - craft - skill - artifice - science - workmanship – knack – which would seem to widen the definition of artist to those who also work in technology (See here for my blog on Hackers and Painters).
Perhaps I’m just not up to speed with debates in the art because I have left it behind for so long – it’s just that I don’t see much debate about opening up the arts and I thought it might be valuable to simply ask some questions. Michael Kaiser, Kennedy School of Performing Arts asks some different questions here but not entirely unrelated.
When I started DSRPTN a few months ago I wrote here about start up tech all for a little over £500 and promised to update in due course. I was prompted to do this update as I’ve recently filed my first VAT returns and in the course of doing so was looking through the various expenses incurred over the past few months.
Rather staggeringly my total outlay on mobile phone so far has been the sum total of £35 since March. This included the once off fee of £15.00 for the SIM card and £20.00 of top up (of which I still have £8.00 remaining). I took my old number with me, didn’t have to sign a contract and can leave any time.
My Freedom package from Ovivo Mobile gives me 150 minutes, 250 texts and 500MB of data at no cost. The only advertising I have to deal with is the first landing page when I am searching the web. This offers up an advertisement that lasts for 4 seconds and then disappears. No different to what you experience in YouTube and it doesn’t bother me – a fair exchange is no robbery as they say.
I don’t use a landline for business and with the availability of WIFI I have not gone over my free allowance at all. The only reason that I had to top up for £20.00 was because I had to dial into a conference call to an 0800 number which was outside the scope of the freedom plan. I have, on occasion, experienced network problems (Ovivo buys wholesale from Vodafone) but then who doesn’t experience occasional problems with signal? So big thumbs up for a cost effective option from Ovivo for a start up in relation to mobile phone bills and I think I mentioned before great customer service - I love that I can contact them on Twitter.
Phone choice itself was Nexus 4 and the first time I broke away from the Apple family. I’m enjoying it a lot. The screen beats my old Iphone hands down (much bigger and better for web searching) and I like the way Android automatically updates everything for you. The only problem I’ve had (which is a minor one) is that it’s sometimes hard to see where your missed calls are listed – but that’s probably me being one of those people who rarely reads a manual. The battery life is great and I’ve also purchased a Just Mobile charger from Gum Plus which also works for Iphone (for any of you laggards still using those) and it’s fantastic. Don’t leave home without it.
But now to the Samsung Chrome Book. I had high expectations. Its lovely and light and that’s important because when your laptop comes everywhere with you weight does matter. And its really fast (boots up quicker than anything else I’ve tried). It’s just that its, well (sigh) hard. I do quite of lot of presentations and I just don’t like the Google presentation slide option. I find it unwieldy to use and not the best in design terms (doesn’t come close to Keynote). Also when you arrive at a conference or event with a Chrome Book the technicians all go a little pale. They are used to dealing with adaptors for most laptops and Macs but Chrome Books seem a little challenging (and didn’t behave very well when I last spoke in Dublin at the Digital Ireland Forum). And not being able to store on the desktop or use Word was also a little difficult and in the end I simply missed my old MacBook Air so the little Chrome Book is gathering dust and I’m writing this on the MacBook Air I bought about five weeks after writing the last post.
So I guess I’m slap bang in the middle on things. I’ve fallen out of love with the Iphone and embraced the Nexus 4 with gusto. I’ve fallen out of love with the Chrome Book and gone back to the Mac. The next challenge is testing out my new email provider Hushmail which I have just configured to work with my domain in less time that it takes to say gmail because going back to my point about a fair exchange being no robbery I’m thinking I’m grown up enough now to pay for my email in return for my privacy.
This was first published in Government Computing
By all accounts, my former colleague in Government Digital Service, Tom Loosemore, ruffled some local government ICT feathers at SOCITM’s recent spring conference in London. At the heart of the debate seems to be the battle between the old “triangle of despair” (legacy systems, lengthy and complex procurement processes, PRINCE 2 management) and the world of iteration (alpha, beta, live, informed by constant user testing and feedback.)
This suggests that the battle is about technology - juggernaut proprietary systems vs Brompton free wheeling open source solutions. But these things are never about technology they’re usually about people, power and fear. But to understand the rumblings it might be useful to provide some context.
Having worked in a local authority I know that change is not new. For more than a decade they’ve been rationalizing and restructuring to meet ever more stringent demands from the centre. Even prior to The Gershon Efficiency Review, the 2004 National Procurement Strategy fed into local authorities CPA Audit Commission ratings. So efficiency savings through smarter ICT procurement and shared services was on the agenda way back then.
But in order to get the culture of local government you have to understand the dominant ideologies driving public sector reform globally for over 30 years. New Public Management was first identified in 1991 as a generic label for administrative reform in the public sector (going back to the early 1980’s). Broadly there are three themes that characterize NPM. Cut your costs while increasing productivity, decentralize your management responsibilities and create targets to improve performance.
A generation of senior local government officials know only this management model. These are the officials that delivered Audit Commission stars to their councils (thereby securing their central government funding) and Heads of ICT and procurement officers were often the heroes of those Audit Commission years delivering as they did huge chunks of the much-needed efficiencies.
But the almost exclusive reliance on NPM methodologies, has had its consequences, the results of which are being played out in these debates between the “triangle of despair” and the new world of iterate, iterate then iterate again.
At the same time as local government was doing what it was tasked to do, new ways of thinking were emerging quickly in the wider world. In 2007 Don Tapscott described these as the confluence of technological, social and economic forces enabling societies to fundamentally redesign how government operates, how and what the public sector provides, and ultimately how governments interact and engage with their citizens. This is the generation, including Tom Loosemore, that now leads Government Digital Service.
They have not experienced first-hand those Audit Commission years, the weeks of preparation proceeding the inspections with extensive staff coaching in corporate messaging to make sure there was a visible “golden thread of policy” from Bin Man to Chief Executive. These were years when failure was simply not an option, when risk was something to be resolutely eliminated (or suffer the career limiting consequences). The emphasis was on being best in class or family (by comparing your performance to other authorities with similar population sizes and problems) because that’s what you were measured and ultimately rewarded on. The leadership required to tick boxes is different to the leadership required to herd sheep.
Harvard Professor Ron Heifetz describes it as the difference between Technical and Adaptive problems. The former being known problems to which we have a known solution and the latter being something that we don’t understand nor know how to solve. GDS is in the world of adaptive leadership, comfortable with risk and collaboration while most local authorities still struggle with the constraints of technical leadership when going with the tried and tested solution (usually from a big systems integrator) sits more easily within their knowledge, structures and risk registers.
Heads of ICT in local government are often the gatekeepers to risk, inextricably linked to corporate reputation (think of the perils for a council of personal data on vulnerable children being exposed?) yet they rarely have a seat in the boardroom. Until Chief Executives themselves start providing leadership in this space, Heads of ICT will continue to procure technological solutions that don’t scare the horses (not least because scaring the horses is usually way above their pay grade).
And what about the people and power issues? Technology is disrupting everything, hierarchy, knowledge and value chains. In his SOCITM talk Loosemore suggested that in the future, Head of IT should not be the people to lead the redesign of public services to meet the public's digital expectations. I see that not as a criticism of Heads of ICT but more of an acknowledgement that current management ideologies in local government are a barrier that Heads of ICT struggle to overcome. And let’s not forget politics, which people invariably do in these discussions. If you think selling risk to your average local councillor is an easy task, think again.
Disruptive leadership is not just the task of the Chief Executive it’s a fundamental challenge to the political ruling class. If you need any proof of that, just think, when is the last time you heard a local council leader say “hey we spent some public money, we tried this, it didn’t work, so vote for me”? Change may be the new normal it’s just going to take a little time for the system to catch up.
FIrst published in Government Computing 07/05/2013