While we were with friends on one side of the Atlantic, other friends such as Jon Husband and Lee Bryant met under the Lisbon son at SocialNow, brought there by Ana Neves, to discuss digital leadership. I need to find out if some of the talks were recorded and got posted already. Here’s a brief recap, with lots of familiar names from our early blogging forays taking on the push for agency and real transformation in the emerging space now that some of the luster of the big tech platforms has gone out of style and seen for what it is.
The Irish government started planning for Brexit in 2014, a full 2 years before the UK referendum, and lobbied both EU and Cameron to secure a yes vote. In contrast it seems the UK started debating the impact of Brexit on the Irish border in earnest about two weeks before the 29 March cliff-edge. “Easiest deal in history” and all that.
Ireland was streets ahead of the UK when it came to planning for Britain’s exit
I recognise much of what Harold writes. I suspect this is also what feeds impostor syndrome. You see the very mixed bag of results from your own efforts, and how most of it is ‘crap’. The few ‘hits’ for which you get positive feedback are then either ‘luck’ or should be normal, not sparse. Others of course forget most if not all of your less stellar products and remember mostly the ones that stood out. Only you are in a position to compare what others respond to with your internal perspective.
At the same time, like Harold, I’ve realised that it is important to do things, to keep blogging and writing in this space. Not because of its sheer brilliance, but because most of it will be crap, and brilliance will only occur once in a while. You need to produce lots of stuff to increase the likelihood of hitting on something worthwile. Of course that very much feeds the imposter cycle, but it’s the only way. Getting back into a more intensive blogging habit 18 months ago, has helped me explore more and better. Because most of what I blog here isn’t very meaningful, but needs to be gotten out of the way, or helps build towards, scaffolding towards something with more meaning.
It’s why I always love to see (photographs of) artist’s studio’s. The huge mess and mountains of crap. The two hundred attempts at getting a single thing to feel right for once. Often we see master pieces only nicely presented and lighted on a gallery wall. But the artist never saw it like that, s/he inhabits that studio where whatever ends up on a museum wall someday is just one thing in a mountain of other things, between aborted efforts, multiple works in progress, random objects and yesterday’s newspaper.
Today I attended the presentation of this year’s Shaking Tree Award. This annual award started in 2016, and is named after my friend Niels who received the first award during his ‘last lecture‘. Niels died a year ago. The Ministry of Healthcare has pledged to keep going with the award, in the spirit of Niels’ efforts: shake up the system, fighting unneeded and kafkaesque bureaucracy, have hands-on experience with the system at ‘the receiving end’ so you know what you’re talking about, have a sense of humor to go with it, and be able to ‘dance with the system’.
The meeting was attended by a diverse range of people, from the healthcare domain, Niels’ family, and of course a smattering of Niels’ friends.
Before presenting this year’s nominees and the award, time was given to remembering Niels and the reason for this award. This was followed by two conversations between a previous winner and nominee and a representative of an institution they struggled with. First were Annette Stekelenburg and Ria Dijkstra, manager operations at a health care insurer. Annette has a son that needs tube feeding to survive. This situation will not change. Yet every year they need to apply for approval to continue receiving the materials needed. Annette and Ria had a frank conversation about what happened when Annette publicly announced she was fed up with this yearly bureaucracy that should be unneeded. Dijkstra explained how they thought that they had already changed the rules, making the renewal once every 5 years, but that the suppliers never knew, and that forms are being sent out in the insurers name that don’t actually exist anymore.
The second conversation was between Kathi Künnen, a previous nominee, and Betsie Gerrits, department head at UWV, the government agency in charge of employee insurance. Kathi is 29 and has incurable cancer. Because of that she has been determined to be 100% incapable of working, yet there are lots of phases where she actually does want to work. 25% of young professionals with cancer have an incurable form, and most want to remain active as long as possible. Yet the system tells them their ‘earning capacity is 0’ and with a stamp like that there’s no way to find paid activity. Here too, the conversation first of all made the two parties at the table see each other as individual human beings. And from it energy and potential solutions follow. Kathi said she needs reassurance that there can be administrative certainty (other than being tossed out as worthless), as her own life is fluid enough as it is and changing all the time.
I thought both conversations were impressive, and the type of thing we need much more of. Once you get past the frustration, anger and disbelief that often plays a role too, you can see the actual human being at the other side of the table. Dancing with the system is, in part, being able to have these conversations.
The award was presented by the previous winner, Tim Kroesbergen, and the secretary general of the Ministry Erik Gerritsen was host to the event, with Maarten den Braber as MC. The jury, consisting of Sanne (Niels’ wife) and the previous two winners, Annette Stekelenburg and Tim Kroesbergen, made their choice known from amongst the three nominees: Eva Westerhoff, Elianne Speksnijder and Geert-Jan den Hengst. All three nominees were presented by a video, as well as a conversation about their experiences.
Eva Westerhoff is a disability rights advocate & accessibility consultant who happens to be deaf. Next to her job at a bank, she does lots of volunteer work on diversity, inclusion & accessibility in information, communication & tech. She’s been knocking on doors in the Healthcare Ministry for over 20 years. Today she said that because of the political cycle, it seems you need to do everything again every four years or so, to keep awareness high enough.
Elianne Speksnijder is a professional fashion model, photographer and story teller. Lyme disease and epilepsy caused her to land in a wheelchair when she was 15. As she said today, an age which brings enough difficulties as it is. It took her a decade to accept that her wheels were a permanent part of her life. She’s 28 now, a woman with ambitions ‘on wheels’. When she was a teenager she sorely missed a role model (or rolling model, as the Dutch word ‘rolmodel’ can mean both). Now she is setting out to be that role model herself. She hopes for much more inclusivity in media, and challenges companies about it.
Geert-Jan den Hengst, is a 48 year old father of two adult children. He has MS and has been living the last decade or so in an environment that provides 24/7 care. His laptop is his core conduit to the rest of the world. Writing is a need for him. He blogs on his own blog, and writes for the local football team’s website, various media in his hometown and more. At the heart of his writing are everyday observations. He says he is “not a political animal, so I need to stay close to my everyday life in what I do”. Often those observations are examples of how life can be made impractical for someone in his position. He mentioned an early example that got him started: for the local football stadium all types of tickets could be bought online, except for …. tickets for wheel chair access. People with wheel chairs needed to come buy the tickets in person. The group least likely to be able to do that easily.
From all three nominees, I think the main takeaway is taking the time to share and listen to the actual stories of people. Especially when things get complicated or complex. Not news, there’s a reason I’ve been active in participatory narrative inquiry and sense making for a long time, but it bears repeating. Stories are our main way of ‘measurement’ in complex situations, to catch what’s going on for real, to spot the actual (not just the intended) consequences of our actions, structures and regulations, to see the edge cases, and to find the knobs to turn towards getting better results (and know what better actually is).
Jury chairman Tim Kroesbergen after reading the jury motivations for all three nominees, announced Eva Westerhoff as the new Shaking Tree Award winner.
Inside the Ministry a poem by Merel Morre is painted on the wall, that she wrote in honor of Niels ‘Shakingtree’.
A rough translation reads (anything unpoetic is all my doing)
shake goals awake
jump past rules
dance joints wider
dream chances free
out of bounds
as it grows
where it lighter
but never stops
In the ministy’s central hall all the pillars show a face of someone with the words “I care”. That and the poem are promising signs of commitment to the actual stories of people. The Ministry still has 24 statuettes in stock for the Shaking Tree Award, so there’s a likelihood they will keep the annual award up as well. But as this year’s winner Eva Westhoff warned, every 4 years the politics changes, so it’s better to make sure.
This Tuesday 2 October sees the annual event of the Dutch Coalition for Humanitarian Innovation. The coalition consists of government entities, knowledge institutions, academia, businesses, and humanitarian organisations in the Netherlands. Together they aim to develop and scale new solutions to increase impact and reduce costs of humanitarian action.
I was asked to join this year’s jury for DCHI’s innovation award. There is a jury award and a public award. For the jury award 8 projects were shortlisted, from which the jury has now selected 3 finalists that were announced last Friday. The public award winner will be selected from the same short list.
At the annual event of DCHI this Tuesday the public award winner will be announced, followed by closing remarks by the Minister of development cooperation mrs Sigrid Kaag, who is very well experienced when it comes to international development. The jury award will be presented to the winner on October 11th at the Partos innovation festival.
The three finalists my colleagues and I in the jury selected are all very interesting, so I briefly want to list them here.
Optimus by the UN’s World Food Program and Tilburg University
Data analysis and mathematical modeling optimises supply and distribution also by taking into account locally available food and conditions. Optimisation means delivering the same nutritional value against lower efforts. It has been successfully used in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Ethiopia. In Iraq it helped save a million USD per month, allowing the program to provide an additional 100.000 people in need with food packages. (link in Dutch)
Quotidian early warning solutions by Oxfam India
Flood prediction models in India are accurate, but still flooding causes many fatalities. The cause is often not being able to timely reach and warn everyone. Oxfam India came up with ways to integrate early warning systems with existing local infrastructure, and so create a low cost option for real time distribution of flood warnings.
Words of Relief / Translators without borders
Being able to provide key information to people in need depends on having that information in the right language. Information only saves lives if those who need it understand it. Translators without Borders creates glossaries which can be used for humanitarian response. Their Gamayun initiative wants to bring 20 underserved languages online by creating such glossaries and providing that as open data to all who can use it. They see it as a key tool for equality as well. In a slightly different setting I saw this work in practice, during the Syrian refugee wave in Germany, at a hackathon I attended such glossaries were used to build apps to help refugees navigate German bureaucracy and find the help they needed.
These three projects are very different, in terms of technology used, in the issues they address, and the way they involve the communities concerned, and all three highly fascinating.
For the UNDP in Serbia, I made an overview of existing studies into the impact of open data. I’ve done something similar for the Flemish government a few years ago, so I had a good list of studies to start from. I updated that first list with more recent publications, resulting in a list of 45 studies from the past 10 years. The UNDP also asked me to suggest a measurement framework. Here’s a summary overview of some of the things I formulated in the report. I’ll start with 10 things that make measuring impact hard, and in a later post zoom in on what makes measuring impact doable.
While it is tempting to ask for a ‘killer app’ or ‘the next tech giant’ as proof of impact of open data, establishing the socio-economic impact of open data cannot depend on that. Both because answering such a question is only possible with long term hindsight which doesn’t help make decisions in the here and now, as well as because it would ignore the diversity of types of impacts of varying sizes known to be possible with open data. Judging by the available studies and cases there are several issues that make any easy answers to the question of open data impact impossible.
1 Dealing with variety and aggregating small increments
There are different varieties of impact, in all shapes and sizes. If an individual stakeholder, such as a citizen, does a very small thing based on open data, like making a different decision on some day, how do we express that value? Can it be expressed at all? E.g. in the Netherlands the open data based rain radar is used daily by most cyclists, to see if they can get to the rail way station dry, better wait ten minutes, or rather take the car. The impact of a decision to cycle can mean lower individual costs (no car usage), personal health benefits, economic benefits (lower traffic congestion) environmental benefits (lower emissions) etc., but is nearly impossible to quantify meaningfully in itself as a single act. Only where such decisions are stimulated, e.g. by providing open data that allows much smarter, multi-modal, route planning, aggregate effects may become visible, such as reduction of traffic congestion hours in a year, general health benefits of the population, reduction of traffic fatalities, which can be much better expressed in a monetary value to the economy.
2 Spotting new entrants, and tracking SME’s
The existing research shows that previously inactive stakeholders, and small to medium sized enterprises are better positioned to create benefits with open data. Smaller absolute improvements are of bigger value to them relatively, compared to e.g. larger corporations. Such large corporations usually overcome data access barriers with their size and capital. To them open data may even mean creating new competitive vulnerabilities at the lower end of their markets. (As a result larger corporations are more likely to say they have no problem with paying for data, as that protects market incumbents with the price of data as a barrier to entry.) This also means that establishing impacts requires simultaneously mapping new emerging stakeholders and aggregating that range of smaller impacts, which both can be hard to do (see point 1).
3 Network effects are costly to track
The research shows the presence of network effects, meaning that the impact of open data is not contained or even mostly specific to the first order of re-use of that data. Causal effects as well as second and higher order forms of re-use regularly occur and quickly become, certainly in aggregate, much higher than the value of the original form of re-use. For instance the European Space Agency (ESA) commissioned my company for a study into the impact of open satellite data for ice breakers in the Gulf of Bothnia. The direct impact for ice breakers is saving costs on helicopters and fuel, as the satellite data makes determining where the ice is thinnest much easier. But the aggregate value of the consequences of that is much higher: it creates a much higher predictability of ships and the (food)products they carry arriving in Finnish harbours, which means lower stocks are needed to ensure supply of these goods. This reverberates across the entire supply chain, saving costs in logistics and allowing lower retail prices across Finland. When mapping such higher order and network effects, every step further down the chain of causality shows that while the bandwidth of value created increases, at the same time the certainty that open data is the primary contributing factor decreases. Such studies also are time consuming and costly. It is often unlikely and unrealistic to expect data holders to go through such lengths to establish impact. The mentioned ESA example, is part of a series of over 20 such case studies ESA commissioned over the course of 5 years, at considerable cost for instance.
4 Comparison needs context
Without context, of a specific domain or a specific issue, it is hard to asses benefits, and compare their associated costs, which is often the underlying question concerning the impact of open data: does it weigh up against the costs of open data efforts? Even though in general open data efforts shouldn’t be costly, how does some type of open data benefit compare to the costs and benefits of other actions? Such comparisons can be made in a specific context (e.g. comparing the cost and benefit of open data for route planning with other measures to fight traffic congestion, such as increasing the number of lanes on a motor way, or increasing the availability of public transport).
5 Open data maturity determines impact and type of measurement possible
Because open data provisioning is a prerequisite for it having any impact, the availability of data and the maturity of open data efforts determine not only how much impact can be expected, but also determine what can be measured (mature impact might be measured as impact on e.g. traffic congestion hours in a year, but early impact might be measured in how the number of re-users of a data set is still steadily growing year over year)
6 Demand side maturity determines impact and type of measurement possible
Whether open data creates much impact is not only dependent on the availability of open data and the maturity of the supply-side, even if it is as mentioned a prerequisite. Impact, judging by the existing research, is certain to emerge, but the size and timing of such impact depends on a wide range of other factors on the demand-side as well, including things as the skills and capabilities of stakeholders, time to market, location and timing. An idea for open data re-use that may find no traction in France because the initiators can’t bring it to fruition, or because the potential French demand is too low, may well find its way to success in Bulgaria or Spain, because local circumstances and markets differ. In the Serbian national open data readiness assessment performed by me for the World Bank and the UNDP in 2015 this is reflected in the various dimensions assessed, that cover both supply and demand, as well as general aspects of Serbian infrastructure and society.
7 We don’t understand how infrastructure creates impact
The notion of broad open data provision as public infrastructure (such as the UK, Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium are already doing, and Switzerland is starting to do) further underlines the difficulty of establishing the general impact of open data on e.g. growth. The point that infrastructure (such as roads, telecoms, electricity) is important to growth is broadly acknowledged, with the corresponding acceptance of that within policy making. This acceptance of quantity and quality of infrastructure increasing human and physical capital however does not mean that it is clear how much what type of infrastructure contributes at what time to economic production and growth. Public capital is often used as a proxy to ascertain the impact of infrastructure on growth. Consensus is that there is a positive elasticity, meaning that an increase in public capital results in an increase in GDP, averaging at around 0.08, but varying across studies and types of infrastructure. Assuming such positive elasticity extends to open data provision as infrastructure (and we have very good reasons to do so), it will result in GDP growth, but without a clear view overall as to how much.
Most measurements concerning open data impact need to be understood as proxies. They are not measuring how open data is creating impact directly, but from measuring a certain movement it can be surmised that something is doing the moving. Where opening data can be assumed to be doing the moving, and where opening data was a deliberate effort to create such movement, impact can then be assessed. We may not be able to easily see it, but still it moves.
9 Motives often shape measurements
Apart from the difficulty of measuring impact and the effort involved in doing so, there is also the question of why such impact assessments are needed. Is an impact assessment needed to create support for ongoing open data efforts, or to make existing efforts sustainable? Is an impact measurement needed for comparison with specific costs for a specific data holder? Is it to be used for evaluation of open data policies in general? In other words, in whose perception should an impact measurement be meaningful?
The purpose of impact assessments for open data further determines and/or limits the way such assessments can be shaped.
10 Measurements get gamed, become targets
Finally, with any type of measurement, there needs to be awareness that those with a stake of interest into a measurement are likely to try and game the system. Especially so where measurements determine funding for further projects, or the continuation of an effort. This must lead to caution when determining indicators. Measurements easily become a target in themselves. For instance in the early days of national open data portals being launched worldwide, a simple metric often reported was the number of datasets a portal contained. This is an example of a ‘point’ measurement that can be easily gamed for instance by subdividing a dataset into several subsets. The first version of the national portal of a major EU member did precisely that and boasted several hundred thousand data sets at launch, which were mostly small subsets of a bigger whole. It briefly made for good headlines, but did not make for impact.
In a second part I will take a closer look at what these 10 points mean for designing a measurement framework to track open data impact.
Nir Eyal, of the Nir and Far blog, on dealing with distractions.
The US government is looking at whether to start asking money again for providing satellite imagery and data from Landsat satellites, according to an article in Nature.
Officials at the Department of the Interior, which oversees the USGS, have asked a federal advisory committee to explore how putting a price on Landsat data might affect scientists and other users; the panel’s analysis is due later this year. And the USDA is contemplating a plan to institute fees for its data as early as 2019.
To “explore how putting a price on Landsat data might affect” the users of the data, will result in predictable answers, I feel.
- Public digital government held data, such as Landsat imagery, is both non-rivalrous and non-exclusionary.
- The initial production costs of such data may be very high, and surely is in the case of satellite data as it involves space launches. Yet these costs are made in the execution of a public and mandated task, and as such are sunk costs. These costs are not made so others can re-use the data, but made anyway for an internal task (such as national security in this case).
- The copying costs and distribution costs of additional copies of such digital data is marginal, tending to zero
- Government held data usually, and certainly in the case of satellite data, constitute a (near) monopoly, with no easily available alternatives. As a consequence price elasticity is above 1: when the price of such data is reduced, the demand for it will rise non-lineary. The inverse is also true: setting a price for government data that currently is free will not mean all current users will pay, it will mean a disproportionate part of current usage will simply evaporate, and the usage will be much less both in terms of numbers of users as well as of volume of usage per user.
- Data sales from one public entity to another publicly funded one, such as in this case academic institutions, are always a net loss to the public sector, due to administration costs, transaction costs and enforcement costs. It moves money from one pocket to another of the same outfit, but that transfer costs money itself.
- The (socio-economic) value of re-use of such data is always higher than the possible revenue of selling that data. That value will also accrue to the public sector in the form of additional tax revenue. Loss of revenue from data sales will always over time become smaller than that. Free provision or at most at marginal costs (the true incremental cost of providing the data to one single additional user) is economically the only logical path.
- Additionally the value of data re-use is not limited to the first order of re-use (in this case e.g. academic research it enables), but knows “downstream” higher order and network effects. E.g. the value that such academic research results create in society, in this case for instance in agriculture, public health and climatic impact mitigation. Also “upstream” value is derived from re-use, e.g. in the form of data quality improvement.
This precisely was why the data was made free in 2008 in the first place:
Since the USGS made the data freely available, the rate at which users download it has jumped 100-fold. The images have enabled groundbreaking studies of changes in forests, surface water, and cities, among other topics. Searching Google Scholar for “Landsat” turns up nearly 100,000 papers published since 2008.
That 100-fold jump in usage? That’s the price elasticity being higher than 1, I mentioned. It is a regularly occurring pattern where fees for data are dropped, whether it concerns statistics, meteo, hydrological, cadastral, business register or indeed satellite data.
The economic benefit of the free Landsat data was estimated by the USGS in 2013 at $2 billion per year, while the programme costs about $80 million per year. That’s an ROI factor for US Government of 25. If the total combined tax burden (payroll, sales/VAT, income, profit, dividend etc) on that economic benefit would only be as low as 4% it still means it’s no loss to the US government.
It’s not surprising then, when previously in 2012 a committee was asked to look into reinstating fees for Landsat data, it concluded
“Landsat benefits far outweigh the cost”. Charging money for the satellite data would waste money, stifle science and innovation, and hamper the government’s ability to monitor national security, the panel added. “It is in the U.S. national interest to fund and distribute Landsat data to the public without cost now and in the future,”
European satellite data open by design
In contrast the European Space Agency’s Copernicus program which is a multiyear effort to launch a range of Sentinel satellites for earth observation, is designed to provide free and open data. In fact my company, together with EARSC, in the past 2 years and in the coming 3 years will document over 25 cases establishing the socio-economic impact of the usage of this data, to show both primary and network effects, such as for instance for ice breakers in Finnish waters, Swedish forestry management, Danish precision farming and Dutch gas mains preventative maintenance and infrastructure subsidence.
(Nature article found via Tuula Packalen)
Just received an email from Sonos (the speaker system for streaming) about the changes they are making to their privacy statement. Like with FB in my previous posting this is triggered by the GDPR starting to be enforced from the end of May.
The mail reads in part
We’ve made these changes to comply with the high demands made by the GDPR, a law adopted in the European Union. Because we think that all owners of Sonos equipment deserve these protections, we are implementing these changes globally.
This is precisely the hoped for effect, I think. Setting high standards in a key market will lift those standards globally. It is usually more efficient to internally work according to one standard, than maintaining two or more in parallel. Good to see it happening, as it is a starting point for the positioning of Europe as a distinct player in global data politics, with ethics by design as the distinctive proposition. GDPR isn’t written as a source of red tape and compliance costs, but to level the playing field and enable companies to compete by building on data protection compliance (by demanding ‘data protection by design’ and following ‘state of the art’, which are both rising thresholds). Non-compliance in turn is becoming the more costly option (if GDPR really gets enforced, that is).
Stephanie Booth, a long time blogging connection, has been writing about reducing her Facebook usage and increasing her blogging. She says at one point
As the current “delete Facebook” wave hits, I wonder if there will be any kind of rolling back, at any time, to a less algorithmic way to access information, and people. Algorithms came to help us deal with scale. I’ve long said that the advantage of communication and connection in the digital world is scale. But how much is too much?
I very much still believe there’s no such thing as information overload, and fully agree with Stephanie that the possible scale of networks and connections is one of the key affordances of our digital world. My rss-based filtering, as described in 2005, worked better when dealing with more information, than with less. Our information strategies need to reflect and be part of the underlying complexity of our lives.
Algorithms can help us with that scale, just not the algorithms that FB uses around us. For algorithms to help, like any tool, they need to be ‘smaller’ than us, as I wrote in my networked agency manifesto. We need to be able to control its settings, tinker with it, deploy it and stop it as we see fit. The current application of algorithms, as they usually need lots of data to perform, sort of demands a centralised platform like FB to work. The algorithms that really will be helping us scale will be the ones we can use for our own particular scaling needs. For that the creation, maintenance and usage of algorithms needs to have a much lower threshold than now. I placed it in my ‘agency map‘ because of it.
Going back to a less algorithmic way of dealing with information isn’t an option, nor something to desire I think. But we do need algorithms that really serve us, perform to our information needs. We need less algorithms that purport to aid us in dealing with the daily river of newsy stuff, but really commodotise us at the back-end.
“The medium was no longer the message, it was just an asshole.
I want my attention back.
Attention is a muscle. It must be exercised.
We deserve our attention.”
Craig Mod on attention in January 2017. In his case he got his attention back by disconnecting, which for all intents and purposes isn’t a viable option. Completely disconnecting in our networked societies is just a reactionary exercise in privilege. But it does sum up my current sentiment, e.g. concerning Facebook, quite nicely.
Some disturbing key data points, reported by the Guardian, from a Congressional hearing in the US last week on the usage of facial recognition by the FBI: “Approximately half of adult Americans’ photographs are stored in facial recognition databases that can be accessed by the FBI, without their knowledge or consent, in the hunt for suspected criminals. About 80% of photos in the FBI’s network are non-criminal entries, including pictures from driver’s licenses and passports. The algorithms used to identify matches are inaccurate about 15% of the time, and are more likely to misidentify black people than white people.” It makes you wonder how many false positives have ended up in jail because of this.
I am in favor of mandatory radical transparency of government agencies. Not just in terms of releasing data to the public, but also / more importantly specifying exactly what it is they collect, for what purpose, and what amount of data they have in each collection. Such openness I think is key in reducing the ‘data hunger’ of agencies (the habit of just collecting stuff because it’s possible, and ‘well, you never know’), and forces them to more clearly think about information design and the purpose of the collection. If it is clear up-front that either the data itself, or the fact that you collect such data and in which form you hold them, will be public at a predictable point in time, this will likely lead to self-restraint / self-censorship by government agencies. The example above is a case in point: The FBI did not publish a privacy impact assessment, as legally required, and tried to argue it would not need to heed certain provisions of the US Privacy Act.
If you don’t do such up-front mandatory radical transparency you get scope creep and disturbing collections like above. It is also self-defeating as this type of all encompassing data collection is not increasing the amount of needles found, but merely enlarging the haystack.
Every day I save a bunch of links from my explorations over the interwebs. Stuff that passes my radar, may become fodder for my writing at some point, but often gets piled and forgotten.I thought maybe it is good to share some of the unsought links I encounter, and some of the notions why I bookmarked it. Blogging of course used to be linklogging, sharing links to your blog neighbourhood, so let’s say it’s returning to a respected tradition. Here are a fistful of links from this week.
- I met Cindy Kohtala (@ckohtala) at the Koppelting unconference yesterday, who just published her dissertation (PDF) at Aalto University in Finland on the sustainability of FabLabs. She included the Dutch network in her research because of the more diverse forms of labs, and the network they form. Will read her dissertation with interest. Reminds me of posting about the failings of FabLabs, and discussing the BeNeLux FabLabs network, because of its unparallelled density and connectedness, I named it the City of FabLabs in my Lift ’10 talk.
- Foss4Geo is the annual global conference of the open source for geo community. This year Bonn in Germany is the host city and I will be keynoting there next week, on the value of open data and the peculiar role geo data has in it.
Internet of Things
- Peter Bihr, of ThingsCon fame, writes about The arena’s of IoT. Please note that the internetconnected fridge is not an IoT arena
- IPFS, a distributed way of delivering webpages and files. Pointed out to me in the context of my postings on distributedness and agency. Napsterizing/torrenting everything. Also seems to want to preserve everything on the web better.
- Steem is a blockchain based social media platform. Aims to ‘pay’ you for contributing, and do the bookkeeping in a blockchain ledger. Not sure that may work, nor that permanent records of each social media utterance are desirable. Like with IPFS mentioned above, ’not forgetting’ may not be a feature but a very concerning social bug. My friend Boris Mann is trying it out, looking forward to reading more of his reflections. I may not understand, I never understood the purpose of Medium either, which superficially seems to be the same thing but without the bookkeeping.
- Anil Dash reflects on the lost infrastructure of social media. This resonates strongly with me in terms of what made blogging so exciting 10-15 years ago, as well as with my recent writings about agency. Part of the picture is weaving a tapestry of functionality across different services and tools that together are a potent mix. It needs plumbing like RSS, trackback and discoverability over the lines of conversations distributed over the individual blogs of the participants. My friend Lilia did her Phd on those distributed conversations. And as Hoder wrote seeing the web again after six years in an Iranian prison: much of our web now, such as Facebook, is just TV, not coffee house interaction.
- Free private cities. Sign up to live in one, so you have an ‘equal’ position based on contracted service provision. Because tinkering with democracy and the fact that others have different needs is bothersome, or such. Apparantly the social contract isn’t good enough. This has high overtones of Snowcrash Burbclaves, and the micro-democracy states (100.000 people each, and with every election there is freedom of movement globally to pick the government (corporate, value or ethnicity based) of your choice in the very entertaining near-future SF book Infomocracy by Malka Ann Older. These private city contracts don’t seem to account for the cost of leaving if you cancel your contract, as it is still territory bound, so finding a new service provider means physically moving. With all the social and monetary cost of doing that. Also seems to me that the Principality of Monaco held up as a good practice example, incorporated US towns, or the City of London for that matter provide ample demonstration of why this may not be the way forward to a more inclusive global society.
- The Ribbon Farm, a blog by Venkatesh Rao, newly added to my feed-reader. His recent newsletter edition on premature synchronization as a cause of problems, chimes with a lot of my experience. Converging too early (because there are just 10 minutes left in the meeting), or forcing convergence in a group doesn’t help much usually. The leading example in the link being military reminds me of an anecdote I once heard about “the world championship of armies” where the US military units were failing because they waited or tried to confirm orders continuously, and the Dutch fared better because they upon receiving others did what seemed worth doing based on context and observation, not seeking further orders and disregarding the literal meaning of orders in the process. Desyncing, as a practice seems valuable advice, and similar to making stuff distributed by design, or probe-based evolution. Seek out new perspectives and let yourself be challenged as part of your routines.
Earlier this week I came across a Lifehacker posting “Get a Better Creative Workflow in Evernote by Ditching Tags” by Melanie Pinola, quoting Tiago Forte who’s into productivity, which proposes one might as well get rid of tags in Evernote because :
- “When you rely heavily on tags, you have to perfectly recall every single tag you’ve ever used, and exactly how it is spelled and punctuated.”
- “The real problem with tags, and why they not only fail to help, but actually even hurt people’s creative self-esteem, is that they give the impression that keeping a useful collection of personal notes requires nothing less than a heroic feat of comprehensive planning, followed by years of meticulous, unwavering cataloging and annotating”
This does not make much sense to me at all. For me tags are a key ingredient in provoking serendipity, as well as a navigational aid. Both play a strong role in my creativity process. If you think tags limit your creativity, I think it is likely because of how you use tags.
Tags vs Categories
It seems both Forte and Pinola see tags as categories. Tags aren’t categories. Yes, categories do require you have a good understanding of how they are organized, and need you to stick with it thoroughly, as otherwise everything ends up in the ‘miscellaneous basket.’ Categories are things you make up before you start categorizing. Tags work the other way around: you add tags to things as you go along. Over time a structure may emerge from the tags which you could adopt as categories, but that isn’t the purpose of tagging. With tags everything starts out as miscellaneous. This key difference is the difference between approaching information from a hierarchical perspective (categories) and from a connected perspective (tags). In the networked age, Everything Is Miscellaneous, as David Weinberger put forth in 2007.
Categories in Evernote
Evernote has no explicit categories functionality, but allows you to work with categories in 2 ways.
- One is dividing your notes in different notebooks. This is something you can use for fixed and mutually exclusive categories. I have different notebooks for different areas of responsibility.
- The other is using the tagging functionality. These can be used for non-exclusive categories (as a note cannot be in more than 1 notebook at the same time, but can be in several categories). I use tags like this as categories as well, for instance to indicate project status, or that a note is related to a specific project. However those tags as categories are just a small part of the tags I use.
How I add tags (e.g. in Evernote)
My tags do not form a structure of categories / a taxonomy. They are reflective of my associations with a piece of information. I add tags to capture what a piece of information means to me, what I associate it with, or how I might use it. All of this in a non-prescribed way, and not as a ‘must’ either. There’s plenty of stuff I don’t tag at all, and there is no planned consistency in my tagging. It simply evolves with my own internal dialogue and idiom (something I would have tagged socialsoftware in 2002, would maybe have been tagged socialmedia in 2009 and socmed in 2015).
Key here is that with my tags I do not try to capture what something is “objectively” about, like the echo of systematic categories, but why I saved it. A piece about an animal may be tagged with collaboration or with business_models based on the associations I had while reading it.
My tags may very well not be used or present in the information I tag with it. (In general if you ask people to tag stuff or title it based on what it means to them, there is a good chance they use words not present in the tagged information itself).
I also save material in about half a dozen languages, and then tagging is a way of connecting material together and make it findable in ways that full-text search cannot do, as search is monolingual.
There is likely a power-law distribution in my use of tags: most will get used maybe once or twice, some will get used heavily. The more heavily used ones, if I notice it as a pattern, can become a sort-of de facto category. So I don’t need to remember all my tags and how I used them, as suggested in the linked article above, I usually only remember the less than 10 I use frequently. I am not bothered if I don’t use them.
How tags help my creativity
There are two ways in which tagging aids my creativity.
The first is that it aids my serendipity. If I search my notes it surfaces things not only based on the content of those notes, but also on the associations I used as tags, and other words I used as tags that are not in the content itself. That way unexpected search results, but nevertheless relevant to or overlapping with my search question, can pop up. So that when I search e.g. for business models the example article about the animal I mentioned above will pop up. That way I find things I did not realize I was looking for.
The second is that tags allow me to navigate and pivot through my collected material. I see social software / networked tools as working in triangles (see my 2006 posting Social Software Works in Triangles).
Such a triangle is formed out of an information item (a Flickr photo, a Delicious bookmark, or indeed a note in Evernote), the person that created/shared it (in Evernote usually myself), and one or more descriptors (tags, locations etc.).
The point is that tags are not just descriptors, they are also turning points on the path through my data. These pivots or forks in the road, allow me to hop-step-jump from an article to other things within the same context through a tag, like another article, and then through to the author of it and maybe onwards to one of their other writings, to somebody’s bookmark collection of which it is a part, to that person’s blog etc.
It allows for navigation and triangulation that way, bringing me places I didn’t know about. That is a richness in association, multiple viewpoints etc, that a category system cannot produce. ( I even dreamt about tags and pivots once, in 2007)
So, don’t ditch tags because they cramp your style. Uncramp your style so you can use tags fruitfully.
Streetfilms have made a great video making the case for opening up (US) public transit data. It nicely illustrates what can be done if private people have access to public information in a reusable way. (what is reusable public service information?)
Some notable quotes from the video:
Chris Dempsey, Massachusetts Department of Transportation on why it makes sense for his organization to release the data:
“If you take the model of the national weather service and apply it to the transit agencies you realize you can have just as many ways to get transit information as you do to get weather information. And the beauty of it is that it’s no cost to the transit agencies.”
But above all I liked what Tim O’Reilly said (emphasis mine):
“Government should think of itself as the platform that society builds on. Rather than government as a vending machine of actual service delivery. The idea of being a platform provider is you do the least possible, not the most possible, to enable others to build on what you do.
I think the importance of that remark bears repeating everywhere where the initial government reflex is to turn anything into something large and expensive. When you talk to those government parts and mention the word ‘portal’ they immediately envision a multi million Euro project. But that is completely unnecessary. I’ve spoken to different EU open data catalogue initiatives in the past few weeks and all of them are sticking to rules of simplicity and small size in terms of organization and budget, as that is what allows them to be successful. Currently I am working with the Dutch government on how a national open data catalogue should be organized, and I think Tim O’Reilly sums up nicely what the leading thought of my advice will be.