Wednesday, December 16, 2009

NZ in the new information economy

I contributed to the Listener Feature article on Twenty Ideas for a Better World :

Sunrise or Sunset economic development?

The 21st century will be the Information century – weightless products and services will be the engine of global economic growth, fuelled by the internet. This single market of two billion people will demand increasing information processing capability - massive data centres using renewable power with a long run competitive price. Almost 10% of NZs electricity generation capacity is currently used at Tiwai Point for a 20th century business - importing alumina and exporting manufactured aluminium. NZ is internationally respected for integrity, we have a "green" brand, a stable legal and regulatory regime, and last month were confirmed as the least corrupt country in the world. These factors create a unique competitive advantage for a globally attractive data centre facility drawing on renewable Manapouri energy. The information industry is at a discontinuity point. Do we have the vision and courage to seize the opportunity and establish NZ as a trusted provider of services to the new global economy?

This post places the article in a wider context . Feel free to contribute via comments.

What can we expect this century?

Thinking about the 21st century world economy, it is not easy to project forward 90 years; imagine forecasting 2009 from 1919 – faster buggy whips anyone?

But there are some clear signals; it will be an information century, and there will be a single global economy connected using the Internet - we are still at early stages in the history of the Internet, and it will continue to evolve. There will be a massive increase in information-based products and services - entertainment, movies, e-books, and other e-things not yet invented - as all products move to this single open infrastructure.

Think how financial markets have evolved over the last 40 years since capital flows went global – recall Walter Wriston, talking about the Twilight of Sovereignty which I referenced in an earlier post. Now think what similar globalisation will mean for information-based products, and imagine the disruption as one single market is created.

Information in this century will be universally available, in any language, updatable from anywhere on the planet, at any time. It will be copied and distributed instantly at zero cost.

What will this flat world look like?

In this new economy, points of commerce will emerge (in a similar way to the entrepots of the 18th century, or the financial centres of the 20th century) – attractor locations in an otherwise flat world. Network economics will drive more and more interaction to these attractors, which will develop unassailable critical mass, securing a long-term ringside seat - top tier countries in the digital information economy. Other locations, service providers, and economies will be relegated to a second tier seating, where they jostle for position as feeders to the top tier.

We are still early in the century, and the seat tickets have not yet been claimed; for example in the entertainment and media world, NZ has a top tier seat, based on the work of Weta Workshop. As a consequence of this creative leadership, we have also built a technology capability and now NZ has eight supercomputers in the world's top 500, compared to one in Australia.

For an example of how a country has identified the future potential, consider Singapore's Intelligent Nation vision - iN2015 . The Singapore story of the last 50 years is remarkable– successfully establishing a viable and growing economy with no natural resources. Now they are looking to maintain a leadership position in the information century, and have aligned their activities - government and private sector behind this strategic vision.

Future success

What is needed to become one of these attractors – a top tier player in the information economy?

In my view the most important pre-requisite is a strategic intent to be a player – that is, a national decision that this is where we want our economy to be in 50 years time.

The characteristics needed to be successful are many, and I would not presume to know what they all are. I do know that a collection of NZ leaders, drawn from multiple disciplines and focused on the question, could develop a shortlist, and assess our current position – world leader, in the peloton, or off the pace – in each. Then we could develop a build/buy/partner approach to strengthen areas where we are not currently competitive, and position us for success.

I think it likely that physical presence, in the form of the global data centre that I suggested in the Listener article, is likely to be one – not something that will differentiate a country, but a necessary price of being in the top tier. There is also the related infrastructure - power, bandwidth and international connectivity, and when I have talked with people this is the area where the discussion has focused. There are lots of reasons why we could not build such a facility – we don't have the funds to invest, there is no payback, there will be even less jobs for a data centre than for an aluminium smelter, we don't have the bandwidth, we don’t have the .... In my view these technology and infrastructure issues can be solved by investment.

The strategic assets that a country will need to claim and retain a top tier position are a lot more difficult to secure simply by investment - assets such as trust, integrity, a stable legal and regulatory regime, and good relations with both the West and Asia (the Internet economy is moving inexorably to the population centres of China and India). These assets are core to New Zealand values, and we need to protect and nurture our current leadership position in these (for example NZ has the least corrupt public sector in the world according to the Transparency International annual survey)

People are the third essential ingredient (after technology and values). As life in the world becomes more difficult (crowding, pollution, climate, traffic, violence - pick your own dystopian trigger), New Zealand becomes an increasingly attractive place to live. We have a special place in the world's consciousness as an accessible and friendly Shangri-la; how many people, when they hear you are from NZ say "Oh, I've always wanted to go there"? If we can attract creativity and build more components needed for success in the digital information economy, there is no reason why we should not sit in a top tier seat.

The big question

The top tier seats will be claimed over the next 10-20 years. To get one will require focused strategic thinking, which is then transformed into action, by government, private sector investors and individuals. Are we up to it?

"while the future's there for anyone to change
still you know it seems
it would easier sometimes to change the past"
(Fountain of Sorrow, Jackson Browne 1974)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Ga1a strikes back

Has there been an increase in unusual natural disasters recently of more extreme weather leading to flooding, more earthquakes and tsunamis, and more hurricanes and tornados? Or is it just an increase in the vividness of the reporting, beaming live footage of distress into our living rooms or mobile phones. While there is definitely more loss of life (more people living in 'at risk" places), and more reporting, the evidence seems to suggest that, in addition, the world is getting more unpredictable.

I can't help but harbour a sneaking suspicion that as we move inexorably beyond the 350 threshold, that mother earth, Gaia, is sending increasingly impatient signals saying "enough already". This is echoed by Bill McKibben : "The negotiations that will happen in Copenhagen aren't really about what we want to do, or what the Chinese want to do, or what Exxon Mobil wants to do. They're about what physics and chemistry want to do: the physical world has set its bottom line at 350, and it's not likely to budge."

Some suggested that the financial meltdown in 2008 was Gaia trying to communicate with global policy makers in the only language they understood – economics and markets; while this may be a bit fanciful, it is clear that the real power is held by nature rather than man.

Everywhere you look there is evidence of this, apart from in the urban centres where policy makers and politicians spend all their lives.

The recent establishment of the G20 to include such countries such as Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Indoensia in addition to the Old Powers was a recognition of the importance of enrolling more leaders in charting the future of the planet. As Paul Collier observed, there are any number of G groupings from the G77 (who have no voice, other than the voice of dignity in poverty), to the G5, who have the economic muscle to compel countries to avoid the tragedy of the commons and work for the collective good.

I hope they do, otherwise there is a real chance that G1 (Ga1a) will decide that she has had enough of the human race destroying the planet and issue an eviction order.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Open Data - the three-legged stool

It was great to see the launch of this week – an official catalog of New Zealand government data sources. It follows the launch of similar sites in the US and Australia. The NZ site includes a discussion forum, and the opportunity to suggest data sources, both of which suggest an openness to working with the wider community. Australia offers an an RSS feed of newly added datasets, and US offers featured tools, both of which could enhance the NZ site.

All three sites come from a world view that has government at the centre, and the sole source of information. While that perspective is understandable when you are working in government, there is a risk that the mental model of a hub and spoke (with government as the hub) will constrain co-creation.

I prefer the mental model of a three legged stool for Open Government Data - supply of data, demand for data and tools to work with the data; all are needed to create success. The three legs can develop at different speeds, but without a growth in all three, we will not have an effective result.

We are seeing an exciting growth in the area of tools – check out examples such as Gapminder, ManyEyes, Swivel, and Datamasher. Both Australia and the US have competitions for open source tools, and there continues to be re-use of software and ideas between governments (such as the Parliament mashup and For your Information). So that leg of the stool is strong and growing.

There is emerging evidence of political commitment to open government data. The launch of is an important milestone in strengthening the supply side of data, and was launched by the Minister of Internal Affairs, Hon Nathan Guy. In Canberra, the Hon Lindsay Tanner, Minister of Finance and Deregulation said at the recent gov2.0 conference that the Govt 2.0 TaskForce is fundamental to the Rudd government and his role as Minister of Finance. The release by SSC of the Government Open Access Licensing (NZGOAL) discussion draft is another positive step. So we also have a demand side that is getting steadily stronger.

In the USA, there is also a strong demand side – initiatives and institutions like the Sunlight Foundation, OReilly Radar, Governing People, and a myriad of others, reflect a society and economy with a high level of energy and funding from within the community, demanding better results from government. In New Zealand, possibly as a result of our size, there is a much less well developed not-for-profit sector, and organisations in the voluntary sector are fragmented and stretched. The 2020 Communications Trust has been a steady presence in the community side of ICT for many years, and I am delighted to have recently joined as a trustee. While there is a small group of enthusiastic participants in the open government movement, this leg of the stool needs strengthening.

Andrea deMaio blogged this week that the critical succes factor for govt 2.0 is to let it go, and letting go is pretty scary. We need to ensure that the third leg - the community - is strong enough so that when government does let go, the stool is stable enough to remain upright.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Don't accept a NO from somebody who can't give you a YES in the first place

The Gov.0 Summit was held in Washington DC earlier in September. The speakers were a who's who of IT and government. The title of this post is my favourite quote from the event (a variation on the “seek forgiveness rather than permission”) from Michele Quaid.

Attendees were mainly from the US - catchphrases like "East meets West" and "Geeks go to Washington" illustrate the IT folk from Silicon Valley working with the federal folk from Washington. There were a small number of overseas attendees – I met people from UK, Canada, Australia, and Singapore – plus myself and Nat Torkington from NZ. Nat spoke about his views on the radio yesterday.

I tweeted from the conference continuously, so you can read the full stream, if you have the stamina, or can visualise the content from my comments on twitter.(produced by

All the material from the conference is available online.
In this post I highlight the items that were of particular resonance for me, with links to more information. From the links you can generally find a Powerpoint and a video to see more. Use this like a menu – choose the dishes that attract you.

Law is the Operating System of Democracy
  • Used more than once by speakers discussing the importance of free and open access to legal proceedings.
  • Government information is national infrastructure and an engine of innovation. Carl Malamud, the only speaker to get a standing ovation.
Government needs to shift from being a retailer of data to providing wholesale data
  • Successful information businesses have operated as a platform - iPhone is the classic example. Govt can get uptake by learning from this. Tim O’Reilly opening keynote
  • Every platform has a killer app. 2.0 closes the loop to consumer about energy consumption.
  • Open and decentralised delivers results ecosystem - open source, ethernet, TCP/IP, Wifi. All based on idea of shared resources Mitch Kapor on government as a platform.
  • What is the role of government in information infrastructure? Government as platform provider of last resort, as well as building on existing platforms.
  • Government is in the wholesale data business. Focus should be on quality of data, let the community do presentation.
  • If you have never seen Gapminder, check it out – the community is much better placed to use these tools to create insight from official data.
Government data is public data
  • Public means on-line. Public means real-time. Government role is wholesale and retail.
  • Priority for government is to produce machine readable data (wholesale). Secondary is interpretation (retail) which many can do - any interpretation of data is only one view.
  • Appsforamerica2 shows that true value lies at the intersection of data feeds.
  • A government agency can’t mash up data from multiple agencies.
  • Government provides the platform for the public as watchdog and innovator.
  • Discussion between Ellen Miller (Sunlight Foundation) and Vivek Kundra (Government CIO).
Three values of open government: transparency, participation, and collaboration
  • Each agency must have a roadmap for Open Government.
  • Roadmap is not just technology, also includes people and operations. Schedule for publishing data online in raw structured machine readable formats.
  • Policy work on how legal framework needs to be reinterpreted in a 2.0 world.
  • How can anyone argue against open and transparency? It's a triple whammy - tap into wisdom and expertise, strengthen trust in government, reduce costs.
  • Beth Noveck Director of the White House Open Government Initiative.
Use wikis and other collaborative tools to create policy on how to open up govt data (aka Eat your own dogfood)
If you can’t describe what you are delivering in a few words, you’re probably doing it wrong.
  • Words of wisdom based on real world experience from Tom Steinberg in eight and a half minutes.
Open source delivers Moore’s Law for software
  • Cost nothing to acquire - costs nothing to retire.
  • .. and many other sound bites on open source from Michael Tiemann.
Vint Cerf See why he still rocks - on the video
  • TCP/IP being open was critical to breaking dominance of proprietary.
  • Platforms of liberation and platforms of control. Is there an inevitability that they move to the control model as they go dominant.
  • Twitter as the channel for the intenet of things?
  • If I designed the internet knowing what I know now, I would have done more on authentication, and mobility.
Thomas Watson was out by 4
  • Thomas Watson, head of IBM, famouly predicted that the market was big enough for five computers. He was wrong – the internet is a single connected computer.
"I decided not to move to XX after I checked it out on the EPA site"
  • An email to the site manager about the personal impact of access to information on the levels of environmental pollution by location.
"Is it disrespectful to wear virtual shoes in a virtual mosque?"
  • Presentation on Digital Diplomacy: Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds - using second life as a way of enabling better understanding of different cultures.
Make a real difference to people’s lives
  • UNICEF use SMS and mobile phones to collect data from the field in Malawi and respond with thank you and diagnosis. Python code on
San Francisco open data
  • is open source community for public access to raw government data in machine readable formats – includes utilities for conversion of data files from XL to more useable forms for mashup. Offshoot from
The winner of the department of defence cyberchallenge hacked the server holding the scores.
Just because you can mashup data doesn’t mean you should.
"Only pack it if you can hack it."
  • Army speaking to the culture of improvisation and RedHat. Surface innovation by soldiers on, for widespread deployment.
Health sector innovations
  • Some neat ones here. I especially liked Healthloop (automated email between doctor and patient on effect of medication on patient daily) – in Healthspottr presentation. As well as feedback to GP, can provide aggregate data on effectiveness of medication for public health policy purposes.
Geospatial is foundation information infrastructure.
  • Extraordinary demonstration by ESRI on what can be done with geo-mashup (demo is about half way through the video – worth waiting through the talking head).
  • If Geo is the bones of the new global computer, then identity must be the arteries.
Beyond geo -
Augmented Reality as new public infrastructure
  • Eat your heart out William Gibson.
National Broadband is the major infrastructure challenge for this generation.
  • Like the railways and the electricity grid for previous generations - Chairman of FCC Julius Genachowski.
  • Policy and program development is designed to be open and participatory - 20 consultation meetings streamed online last month.
  • Level of involvement very high for a dull regulatory subject - sign of the (2.0) times and the importance of broadband.
Is Gov2.0 a political struggle over power & accountability? Or an upgrade?
45% of government systems are low risk – can be in public cloud.
  • Avoid wasting public money on the management of commodities. Government agencies and cloud computing Casey Coleman, CIO, GSA.
Use your gmail logon for govt low risk sites
What makes government sites work?
  • Organize content for the public
  • Rely on (and don’t fear) Web 2.0
  • Listen (and respond) to user needs
  • Know visitors come to conduct specific tasks
  • Engage customers with candid, well written blogs
Start small, fail quick

This mantra for Gov2.0 development was mentioned by multiple speakers; it is hard for government to action, but essential as we operate in a richly connected 21st century world.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

"We are all individuals" - "I'm not"

My favourite Monty Python is this priceless gem from the movie "Life of Brian".

I am sure the Python team had not foreseen the chattering classes that now make up the on-line world, but behind the humour of paradox, there is an important truth - everyone being an individual does not a movement make.

The Sound of Silence

I went to a performance of John Cageś 4´33 by Margaret Tan some years ago. This legendary piece is in three movements, all of them consisting of silence - the performer not playing their instrument.The content of the composition is meant to be perceived as the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed, rather than merely as four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence.

At the performance I attended, Margaret played the piece on a toy piano, opening and closing the lid of the piano to mark the end of each movement - the first being timed at 30 seconds, the second (the long second movement) being 2′40″ and the final movement of 1′20″. She invited the audience to turn on their mobile phones for the duration of the piece. The effect was extraordinary - the concert hall was filled with a constellation of sound that covered the entire classical music spectrum (saying something about the choice of ring tone for people that attend such concerts). It was a dramatic illustration of the sheer volume of interactions between people.

The global babble

Now in the transparent world of 2.0, we have visibility of how much people talk to other people - on Facebook, Twitter and blogosphere - or sometimes just to the void, in the hope that someone is listening. I was told as a child that I had one mouth and two ears, and should use them in the right proportions. Well, we clearly have ten fingers and are using them all to communicate to the world.

And each person has their own point of view and story to tell, so where can we find or seek the new collective narrative?

The traditional sources of collective narrative, based on personal interactions, are all being dissipated in the new rolling conversations that are happening around the world, around the clock. None of the old sources of authority seem to be relevant any more: we have increasingly fragmented religion, and the old ideologies - communism, socialism, capitalism - all seem to fall short of our collective expectation.

Analysis? - FAIL

One possible response is to break down the world into smaller chunks, to a size that we are capable of understanding; problem is, there are no tidy segments that the ideas or the dialog fit into.

As an aside, I attended the World Summit Awards last week. The awards seek to recognise great use of internet technologies in eight categories - e-Business & Commerce, e-Government & Institutions, e-Health & Environment, e-Learning & Education, Entertainment & Games, e-Science & Technology, e-Inclusion & Participation, and e-Culture & Heritage. There were 20,000 entries from 157 countries and some extraordinary innovations and achievements in the winning 40. While the categories were needed to organise the judging, there were no clear boundaries between the different domains, and indeed all knowledge connects.

How can we cope with the sheer volume of opinion. Thanks to Confused of Calcutta last month for pointing out The Mountain Men’s Three Wolf Moon Short Tee Shirt. 51jZitVcKmL._SS500_
¨Just take a look at the reviews of the item on Amazon. 136 customer reviews. 13,171 finding the first review helpful. 181 comments on that review. Don’t stop there, you must take a look at some of the other reviews. Preferably while sitting down in a comfortable position.¨

It puts me in mind of Google´s audacious goal - ¨to organise the world´s information¨ - which I think is unachievable. Any classification system - Dewey, Dublin Core, or metadata - will collapse under the weight of the world´s information and the peopleś perspective. Ever tried to create a search engine in Mandarin? - well neither have I, but I am told it is a real challenge because the characters have different meanings dependent on context.

Meaning is lost in the choices that are made. The search for a new semantic order is a courageous undertaking.

What can bring it together?

We do seem to have a basic need for a unifying narrative - if history is any indicator. A new narrative needs to be global, multi-cultural, inclusive and trans-national, if indeed one is possible.

This leads me to conclude that the health of the planet - ecology, green movement, sustainability - is the only possible narrative that will be able to connect such a diversity of interests.

The topic of Climate Change has increased in importance over the last few years, with major debates about the level of emission reduction that can be expected, and what will be needed to stave off catastrophe. The only focal point for such action is the United Nations, an institution that has considerable political baggage; the risk is that the need for action on climate change is supplanted by debates on the role and value of the UN, and other options for global governance (which is where I started this story).

However, for all it´s faults, the UN is all we have right now and we will see how effectively that is working at the Copenhagen Summit in December.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Dealing with SPIN - the four horsemen

Nicholas Gruen, leading the Australian Government 2.0 task force proposed a new theory of SPIN (Serial Professional Innovation Negation); the theory outlines the very strong political incentives against greater risk taking, which in turn holds up the adoption of Web 2.0 approaches – and indeed quite a few Web 1.0 approaches.

I cross-post my comment from the blog here, but I highly recommend that you visit the original post, and the ensuing commentary - essential reading for anyone interested in technology led change in government.


Good to see the conversation getting to the heart of the challenges that the TaskForce faces.

Government is a large and complex organisation, with most incentives geared towards maintaining the status quo (because that is the natural state of power in any large complex organisation). “2.0″ is disruptive technology that will re-engineer information flows within government and between government and the people. But the natural order is for strong resistance from within (Machiavelli first pointed this out), and technology will only be effective when operating in combination with other forces.

In my view there are four forces for change that can be channelled to achieve change in government – leadership, economics, heroes and citizens.

Leadership has to come from political leaders – they alone are the ones that can adjust the values that public servants operate within. However, other political issues – education, healthcare, taxation, foreign affairs, environment, transport, law and order – will always be higher up the agenda than reform of the bureaucracy.

Economics is a powerful force for change – organisations change when they can no longer afford to stay the same. In NZ, where I am based, the financial crisis that we faced in the 1980s (as a result of the collapse of our agricultural exports to Britain arising from the EU) led to major reform of the public service. There have been similar pressures in most other jurisdictions, and there is some indication that the current global financial meltdown will create some additional pressure for change. As the current catch phrase goes: “never waste a good crisis”.

Heroes is the word I use for those who operate within the public service to drive change from within. These can range from “skunk-works” activities to free up government information, to personal leadership of high visibility transformational change programmes by senior public servants. The bigger the change, the bigger the fall, and the less incentive to take the risk.

Citizens are the most powerful force that will, over time, create change. The role of txt messaging in the fall of the Estrada government in the Philippines in 2001, and the recent power of twitter in Iran after the election are two dramatic examples. Other examples include the use of people’s choice to drive better performance in service delivery in government administration.

Effective public service transformation have components of all four of these forces acting together. I give three examples here, I am sure anyone on this discussion can create their own:

1. The movement that is currently sweeping through American federal government – started by a combination of leadership (Obama) and citizens (internet campaigning), reinforced by economics, and some emerging heroes within the administration.

2. The current change in California, almost entirely driven by economics at this stage, and needing an enrolment of leadership, citizens and heroes, if it is to pull out of a downward spiral.

3. Government reform in the UK in the 1990s, which used a combination of leadership (Tony Blair) and citizen choice, supported by heroes in various government agencies and only a small amount of economic pressure.

So what should we do if we want to drive government transformation ? Make sure that all four of these forces for change are harnessed to a common future vision. Government 2.0 can deliver lower cost government, economic growth, citizen engagement, and rewarding job opportunities for those in the public service with the courage to seize them.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Society - maybe there is such a thing after all

Margaret Thatcher's famous observation in 1987 "Society - there's no such thing" provided a foundation for the market economy to become the basis for decision making for over two decades. In this year's series of Reith lectures "A New Citizenship", Harvard Professor Michael Sandel argues that the scope of the market economy has extended to effectively create a "market society", removing moral, spiritual or political values, and claiming economics as the only criteria. Government has focused on a core role to correct market failures, not recognising that public policy deals with values that can't be captured in monetary terms.

He provides some wonderful examples of the impact of ascribing a price (economic value) to everything - fees for late collection of children from pre-school in Israel, the option of a tradable quota for refugees, the outsourcing of surrogate motherhood to India, financial incentives in Singapore for educated women to have children and sterilisation for women without a college degree, and the ethics of genetic engineering.

In the final lecture he argues the rationale for keeping markets in their place - rejecting the "spurious science and value neutrality" of economics and "market mimicking governance" that underpin technocratic decision making. Politics has sought to distance itself from core values since the 1950s when Harold MacMillan said "if people want a sense of purpose they should get it from their archbishop; they certainly should not get it from their politicians". We've come a long way in the last fifty years, and Sandell sees the election of Obama as a signal that the American public at least have the hunger for a public life of larger meaning. He finishes by arguing for the return to a politics of common good, rebuilding the infrastructure of civic life - public amenities that create shared citizenship.

I found my way to the lectures through an article by Madeleine Bunting noting that the certainties that have dominated the last quarter of a century – that the market knew best, achieved efficiency and produced wealth – are no longer supreme, and there is a need for a new narrative. She quotes documentary film-maker Adam Curtis :"What we have is a cacophony of individual narratives, everyone wants to be the author of their own lives, no one wants to be relegated to a part in a bigger story; everyone wants to give their opinion, no one wants to listen. It's enchanting, it's liberating, but ultimately it's disempowering because you need a collective, not individual, narrative to achieve change,"

Social Media, within the technology and the tools, contains two forces that drive us in different directions - the voice of the individual and community created content.

Clay Shirky says in UsNow: "We are living through what economists have called an positive supply side shock to the amount of freedom in the world. More people can say more thing to more people than ever in history". This tower of babel creates a plurality, a diversity that is rich and fertile - an alluvial plain of ideas - but with no coherent story.

We have examples of endeavours such as Wikipedia, that are only able to be created by a community, working together to create something they could not create individually. The Open Source Software community is another example. Such community efforts deliver efficiency, but the primary driver is an ethical one; as Glyn Moody comments when discussing the General Public License "It is not trying to be “efficient”, it is trying to be ethical; ideally you want both – and in many respects, the culture that the GNU GPL fosters is extremely efficient. But if efficiency and ethics clash, ethics win every time."

Since the 1970s, I have used an example of the trade-off between economic valuations and other collective values that I got from Stafford Beer's masterpiece Platform for Change:

"Mr and Mrs Stubbs wrote to the Times about the Norman Church of St. Michael at Stewkley. The church stands in the middle of a possible runway of a possible Third London Airport. The complaint was that the Roskill Commission, studying alternative sites for the airport, and applying cost-benefit analysis, had adopted a wrong criterion for valuing the church. It seems that an irreplaceable twelfth-century work of art was being valued at the sum for which the church is insured against fire.

This led to considerable discussion. Can we indeed place a monetary value on a priceless heritage,? If it really is priceless, presumably not. Then why not have the cake and eat it - by moving the church, some said. The proper cost would then be the price paid for the move. But the Norman church at Stewkley is not the same church if it is somewhere else replied others. The correspondence was effectively closed by Mr R J Osborn, He said the $100 spend on building the church in 1182, when discounted at ten per cent to 1982, represented roughly $ 1,300,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. He did not add 'stuff that in your cost-benefit and compute it'"

If he was still alive, Stafford Beer would be delighted by this year's Reith lectures, and relieved that there may indeed be such a thing as society - emerging phoenix-like from the rubble of the financial crisis.

And just as I was about to publish this, I see that Tim O'Reilly is also musing on the values of our society - great post.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Government 2.0

"Government 2.0" is in danger of collapsing under the weight of semantic satiation - "a cognitive neuroscience phenomenon where intense repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener, who can only process the speech as repeated meaningless sounds" (Wikipedia). The phrase is burdened with so many expectations and meanings, that it may pass out of currency.

Which would be a shame, because behind the overuse there are a number of important concepts that challenge politicians and bureaucrats to think and behave differently, as they discharge their responsibilities as our employees. Here I will unpick some of the threads of Government 2.0, starting with a bit of whakapapa:

My first encounter with "2.0" was the Esther Dyson book - Release 2.0 - which I bought when it was published in 1997 (back in the dead tree era). The term Web 2.0 was first used by Darcy DiNucci in 1999. After that, we had the boom and bust, and it was not until 2004 that the term was resurrected by Tim O'Reilly and popularised through a series of Web2.0 summits and expos.

Government 2.0 was the title of a 2005 book by William Eggers, but the book is mainly about the application of technology , and there is little reference to the unique characteristics of a 2.0 world. The first time I came across a meaningful exposition of government 2.0 was in a presentation by Tara Hunt in May 2007; Tara took the O'Reilly tenets for Web 2.0 and applied them to government - coming up with nine concepts that are listed here as an anchor for the discussion. I refer back to them often in thinking and in presentations.

Web 2.0

The Web as a Platform
The Long Tail
Data is the next Intel Inside
Users Add Value
Network Effects by Default
Some Rights Reserved
The Perpetual Beta
Cooperate, don't Control
Software above a single device
Government 2.0

the government is my springboard
the long diverse tail of citizens
data is .. tricky
going to the edges for feedback
citizen community is about relationships
some rights reserved
evolution is an ongoing process
trust is the truest way to empowerment
government on the go

Since then, we have experienced the meteoric rise of social media, and the effect on the political domain, most notably in the election of President Obama on the back of an internet-savvy campaign, his early release of the Memorandum on Transparency and Open Government, and the raft of open government initiatives coming from the administration in Washington DC.

So, armed with this background, what do we make of the smorgasbord of issues under the government 2.0 banner today? I would like to suggest that they fall into the following categories:

Open and Participatory Policy Development - by bureaucrats

I have earlier commented on wiki government as a tool to get better results from the policy development process. The traditional model for policy development is a hub and spoke model, with the public servant at the center, gathering comments and integrating them in a final policy position. However, we know that the best results come from building on the ideas of others in a rolling conversation, which has the public servant as a participant in a dialog with a broader and diversified community. The approach to public policy arising from the recent Public Sphere conference in Canberra is an example of this.

Connection with citizens - by elected officials

Elected politicians have always placed a special emphasis on connecting with those that they represent; this has been through electoral offices, letters and emails, phone conversations, and their daily interactions with individuals, both in an official capacity (when opening a new facility) or casually (for example taxi drivers or the person in the next seat on an airplane). For these purposes, the new channels of communications such as blogs and their related comments, Facebook, and Twitter, are no more than an additional way of interacting with the public. Successful politicians will listen and talk in these fora and incorporate the ideas in their positions and decision making. However, researchers in both Australia and New Zealand have found that politicians have been slow to adopt interactive and Internet based communication mediums because they are fully engaged with existing modes of interaction with constituents.

Participation by public servants in new media

Most government agencies restrict the use of the internet by staff in some form; blocking access to sites and giving a variety of reasons - security, inappropriate use, productivity drain and others. Clearly it is important that information collected and created by the state is protected from unauthorised access, and that confidential and personal information is held securely; but this needs to be balanced with the need to give people the tools they need to do their job. As digital natives enter the public service, access to social media will increase in importance. In the future, I think we are likely to see a separation between core operational systems, which are secured to maintain confidentiality, and knowledge and information systems, which have full access to global internet resources.

Access to government information - open data

Most western jurisdictions have laws that provide for full public access to information as a default, with exceptions to be subject to specific justification; while this legal position is clear, operational practice is far from compliant with the law. There are a variety of reasons given for this, some of which I outlined in my last blog post as government CIO, and all of the barriers can be overcome by public servants who want to deliver better value to citizens. While government collects and stores a lot of information, it rarely has the time or resources to fully use the data; we know that the public will voluntarily add value to raw data, whether it is MPs expenses, adding metadata to historic records, or creating a mashup of data on stolen bicycles. This area is the most exciting for me, and is a genuine example of we-Government.

Other related areas

There are a number of other topics that often get incorporated in discussions on government 2.0. Specific examples include the use of open source, kick starting the local ICT economy, on-line service delivery, ICT capability and skills, identity management and authentication, and better broadband. While all these are important factors in our use of ICT and are all neceesary to improve government performance, they are peripheral to the four key areas outlined in this post. of government 2.0.

Government 2.0 is about using technology to strengthen the connection between people and government activities (funded by taxation and exercised through the authority of elections).

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Something in the Air - time for another Summer of Love?

Open data open government - maybe it is a viral infection from the PDF09 conference, or maybe it's an idea who's time has come, but it seems you can't move in cyberspace without bumping into it:

Open Up Government Data - Wired How-To Wiki : Open Government for New Zealand
It Is Time To Explore The Dark Side of Government 2.0 » Government Information – does it want to be free?
Tom Steinberg: Open house in Westminster - Commentators, Opinion - The Independent
Around the Corner
Planet Open Government Open Source Hacking - Open Government Data Roundup
Open government and Linked Data; now it’s time to draft… « Cloudlands
Wiki Government - Brookings Institution

And it is global - I have just picked posts from the US, Canada, UK, Italy and New Zealand, but I am sure there are others out there.

It's given me a flashback to the 60s - both the song title, and also the optimism that people can change things.

The important thing is that this energy gets translated into action, rather than floating away like balloons in the sky.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

"It's like Europe in 1944"

I used this quote last night in a discussion about the redrawing of boundaries in the 21st century global village - like Europe in the post-war period, the new information infrastructure will emerge staggering from the rubble of a recession ravaged global economy.

The information distribution supply chain is being destroyed, and will be reconstructed in a new form. This will happen in all digital media - broadcasting, music, books, newspapers.

There will be new boundaries where value is created and transferred, similar to the national boundaries that were created at the Potsdam conference in 1945.

In the period after the end of World War II, the Bretton Woods agreement also created a new financial order that has provided the foundation for international trade for the last sixty years. The main architects of these post-war arrangements were USA, Great Britain and USSR.

In the new information economy, the architects are not so easily identified, and their sources of authority are not clear. The new trans-national ecosystem will be founded on high speed fibre and wireless networks connecting houses and people around the world. Each person will have instant access to all the world's information, and the ability to create and update information directly.

Countries and government are exploring different routes to get there (for example Digital Britain, published last week), but there appears to be almost universal agreement on the end state of ubiquitous connectivity. The points for discussion are - how long until we get there, and who will pay for the infrastructure investment.

The business case for an infrastructure investments is often challenging, and the case for fibre to the home (FTTH) is no exception. As Dr Arthur Grimes comments "The potential uses for some infrastructure may not be dreamed of when the initial investment occurs". With FTTH, innovations in education, health, aged care, and environmental management will deliver huge benefits, but these will not always reflect in the bottom line for the investor.

However, communities and countries that arrive at the end state earlier will be in a powerful position to secure decision rights when the new boundaries and financial arrangements are being determined. A strategic challenge to be sure.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Down come the walls

When Twitter has the starring role in the lead item on the 6pm news, you know that social media is a real phenomenon. Talking about Iran, Kevin Anderson from the Guardian said " Regimes that used to keep an incredibly tight control on information have lost that control. In the past this (..the conflict over the election results..) would have been airbrushed out of history"

The twitter feed is Persiankiwi and is a current and graphic example of the twilight of sovereignty referenced in the previous post.

This sort of activity is seen as liberating in the context of repressive regimes - providing transparency and a voice for the people outside of tightly controlled media channels. But it is global - the disruptive force of social media makes no judgement on the government that it disrupts.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dealing with scale

Moving from individual communities, where decision-making is based on consensus, to governance of a single global village is a daunting undertaking. But a single, globally connected information ecosystem is inevitable, and therefore it will have some form of governance (which could be anywhere on the spectrum from American wild west to Stalinist five year plan).

I think governments will try to assert control within national boundaries (such as 绿坝-花季护航 Green Dam Youth Escort),, but they will inevitably be circumvented (three days after the first news reports there were further reports that it had been hacked).

It reminds me of the early growth of the eurocurrency market in London in the 1970s, where I was working. Eurodollars were the way in which banks created money outside of the control of individual central banks. A US dollar was only under the jurisdiction of the Federal Reserve when it was held by a bank in the US. Dollars held elsewhere avoided domestic interest rate regulations, reserve requirements and other barriers to the free flow of capital. Untethered to any fixed reference point (the Gold Standard was abandoned in 1971), money moved without constraint; we are now seeing an endgame being played out.

Walter Wriston, Chairman of Citibank, wrote about the diminishing power of governments to operate in isolation; check out the speech he delivered in 1992 on the topic of his book The Twilight of Sovereignty. The question put to him "The information revolution appears to call for new political as well as economic institutions. What are these new political institutions likely to be?" remains unanswered, and the need for an answer has increased.

Information distribution is similarly immune to actions by individual governments, even those with massive financial and technical resources; as in the financial industry, the genie is not able to be re-bottled.

So the community (yes, all 6 billion of us that live in the global village) will eventually reach a point where there a no nationally imposed controls on the creation, flow, reuse, and distribution of information. Anyone in the information business (that includes newspapers, books, music, and governments) knows that there is going to be comprehensive restructuring of the information supply chain. No-one has a clue what the new governance will be – as Clay Shirky comments, we are like the printing industry in 1500.

But, having proposed the Marae model in my previous post, I would like to suggest three principles that will help answer the question “can it scale?”

  • The system will be self regulating – that is it cannot rely on external intervention to arbitrate routinely occurring competing interests
  • The system will be recursive – the design to move from the community to the next level of aggregation is repeated as we move through the layers of scale, and there is no need for those outside to understand how an individual community operates
  • The system will be adaptive – able to respond to changes in the external environment, and supportive of innovation

We can look to the internet infrastructure itself to see how these principles can be put into action - can they apply to the content domain, for true global village governance?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Model for the global village

How do communities manage their affairs?

There are as many answers to this question as there are communities. The ReadWriteWeb has recently released a unique report on a guide to Online Community Management – for businesses seeking to engage with online communities.

Another example of collective oversight and governance – “of the people by the people” is the recent UK documentary UsNow which gives some pointers.

As we think about the global village, it may be helpful to look to the village as a construct for insights.

Stephen Coleman has suggested we go back to the agora of ancient Greece as a model for connecting parliament to the people. However, the agora as an “open place of assembly for all free-born, male landowners” is less than inclusive, and seems out of line with modern thinking.

Having moved to New Zealand 25 years ago, I have developed an interest in the decision making processes used by the Maori people in developing a collective view, and I think thus may be a useful place to seek a model for the global village. I am not in any way an expert on Maori decision making or protocol, and a number of the ideas that follow have been taken from a paper given by Adelaide Collins to the Australia and New Zealand Third Sector Research conference in 2002.

In New Zealand, Maori culture has been based on the Marae as a meeting place, where different ideas from within the community are brought together, and through discussion and debate, a collective view is developed. The idea of a Marae as a communal home brings to mind the notions of belonging, of community, of privacy, and of the right to control what happens in your own home. This definition can take the meaning of Marae beyond its physical presence to incorporate its social, psychological, emotional, and even spiritual meaning for people.

In Maoridom, each community decides the rules of enfranchisement. Maori communities have a network of groups, organisations and alliances bonded by culture that parallels the wider network of not-for-profit organisations, community organisations and voluntary associations that are established around particular concerns. Marae are one of the most traditional Maori institutions still operating. Defined as a physical or symbolic home for a kin-based group, Marae are primarily made up of three elements that function in a symbiotic fashion to each other: land, community, and whare tipuna (ancestral houses). Maori assume they have rangatiratanga (authority, self-determination, autonomy) over their Marae, their homes. The community organises itself into groups as necessary and these groups are made responsible for a particular aspect of Marae life.

Traditional Maori decision-making is characterised by the following:

  • Consensus is preferred even if it takes time.

  • Emotion is expected, vented and tolerated especially when mana is challenged. Reconciliation is then part of the way forward to the consensus decision.

  • Silence is important and does not mean consent. What is not said is noted.

Consider what could happen if these concepts were translated into cyberspace; how could we adapt the concepts for globally connected community – can we re-use the traditional Maori concepts as metaphors for decision-making in cyberspace?

And, most critically, can it scale to a single global village?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Foundation concepts

Two foundation concepts from W Ross Ashby.

Complex systems cannot be understood through simplification. W Ross Ashby is one of the founding fathers of systems theory, and developed the law of requisite variety, published in his 1956 book Introduction to Cybernetics. This amazing insight states that “only variety can absorb variety”; the application of the law is widespread, and was developed further by others, including Stafford Beer, who created a Viable Systems Model (VSM) as an organisational design tool.

While some have suggested that global governance can be achieved through an extension of the democratic principles (for example George Monbiot), it is clear to me that the idea of a unitary source of authority is out of line with modern developments in global systems and governance, which are based on a networked model, much better able to accommodate the inherent variety in a global population, and remain viable as a governance system.

Emerging global examples are ICANN and wikipedia; both operate on an “open mike” pluralistic model that allows each individual to provide input and a collective consensus to emerge through the interaction of ideas.

This concept underpins a lot of recent thinking in the areas of participation for example the guide to participation prepared and published using wiki technology by Laura Sommer (working for the NZ government).

Beth Noveck has also written about “Wiki Government”. Beth comments that governance by a professional elite – based on expert decision making – may be supplanted by communal pooling of knowledge as a better way to organize decision-making in the public interest: “Political philosophers from Aristotle to Rousseau to Rawls have suggested that when groups engage in the public exchange of reason, they produce better ideas."

Towards the end of his life, Ashby, with Roger Conant, published produced the Good Regulator theorem "Every Good Regulator of a System Must be a Model of that System."

What models can we create of the global village?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Back to basics

The graphic is from a resource for secondary schools - Our Changing World - soon to be published by the Global Education Center. The original idea - understanding the make-up of the global village - comes from David Smith.

In this village, the challenges of governance are massive. We only need look at the United Nations to understand how the best intentions can get derailed.

George Monbiot proposed one possible solution to this challenge; to quote extracts from Wikipedia:

Monbiot's fifth book, The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order, was published in 2003. The four main changes to global governance which Monbiot argues for are a democratically-elected world parliament which would pass resolutions on international issues; a democratised United Nations General Assembly to replace the unelected UN Security Council; the proposed International Clearing Union which would automatically discharge trade deficits and prevent the accumulation of debt; and a fair trade organisation which would regulate world trade in a way that protects the economies of poorer countries. Monbiot emphasises that he does not present the manifesto as a "final or definitive" answer to global inequalities but intends that it should open debate and stresses that those who reject it must offer their own solutions.

We need to recognise that the global village, while a simple concept, is a metaphor for a complex system; we know that trying to understand complex systems through a reductionist approach ( trying to simplify a complex system) is unlikely to be successful. This is because the simplification removes the essential elements from a complex system. For example, in our notional global village of 100 people, one person would represent the diversity of the populations of Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and Antarctica - an impossible task.

My next post will describe how "Variety" can help us understand complexity.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Transforming Government

I spent five years leading e-government and ICT for the New Zealand government; I resigned from the position of Government CIO on 1 May 2009. I had the opportunity to deliver a "lessons learned" presentation at the GOVIS2009 conference

The title of the presentation was "The Sisyphean task of transforming government"; the slides are online at Slideshare.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Government in the global village

Over the last five years, it has become crystal clear that we are in a single, globally connected world - both through the widespread use of internet based technologies by individuals everywhere, and through the common issues faced by all governments in responding to the challenges that this creates.

The world has changed

The economics of ICT have been dealt another disruptive shock by the advent of cloud computing. At the end of the 19th century, each organisation made their own arrangements for power generation. The construction of the electricity grid fundamentally changed the cost of power, and inexorably led to the decline of organisation-based power generation, although this was strongly resisted by the suppliers and managers whose positions and expertise was based on effective management of power generation equipment. We are seeing a similar shift in the world of information processing through the advent of the “cloud computing”, well described in the book
The Big Switch.

In addition, we are seeing a levelling of person to person connectedness that bypasses traditional channels. This creates the opportunity for groups with a common interest to create a tight community where ideas are generated, discussed, refined and crystallised from a diversity of participants. The velocity of circulation of information, across organisation and national boundaries, is faster than interactions between people physically located in the same building. It really does not matter where you are in order to join a discussion, which has a huge impact on the economics of social production. The Wealth of Networks explains this further.

And a third example of how the world has changed is from the Gartner Symposium analysts keynote. “Business users are reading about technology and seeing new possibilities Did you see the BBC story about streaming video through your cellphone direct to a web site? Could we use that to improve our service calls? These business leaders don’t need IT to do this for them, they can fund it themselves because: Technology is no longer scarce; Technology expertise is no longer the domain of IT; and Technology is no longer a capital expenditure”

How is government to respond to these challenges? Two areas need priority attention, and feature high on the agenda of government CIOs around the world.

Offshore data

What do we need to think about when making decisions on where to locate government data? NZ released guidelines for the use of offshore ICT service providers earlier this month, which were incorrectly interpreted by some as being “protectionist”. My view is that they were the exact opposite - they recognised the economic reality of cloud computing and that government would have to make a choice between operating our computing systems in New Zealand, and using offshore data centres at 20-25% of the cost. What are the factors that need to be weighed up, and how compelling is the case for retaining data onshore, with the consequential cost premium. As I outlined at the start, the shift is inexorable, and NZ will never have the scale to establish a data centre at the price points available from cloud computing, so we will need to decide how much value we place on the areas of risk outlined in the guidelines.

Open up government data

We need to recognise the network effects of opening up government data in a form that means others can access it. Economic value is created by businesses building innovative new services using government data. Public value is created by enabling a richer and deeper understanding and dialogue among interested individuals about what the data tells us about our lives.

We can immediately think of reasons why it is not a good idea - there has been no demand for the data we have already published, the data quality is not up to standard, the data was only collected for a specific purpose, the data will be misinterpreted, we do not have sufficient resources to properly present the data. In my view, all these perceived problems come from a historic perspective on information and data that is not adequate for a 21st century information economy, and does not reflect the new network economics outlined in the Wealth of Networks.

legal, policy, and moral position is clear - citizens own the data, having paid for its collection through taxes. These “problems” will all be solved by the community, and the role of government is to give priority to this.

We can expect to see two other significant effects, in addition to value creation, from freeing up government data. Firstly, we know that government acting alone cannot achieve the outcomes - stronger economy, better education, sustainable development, safer cities, healthier communities - that New Zealand needs if we are to have affordable government in the future. These outcomes will arise from government, individuals, NGOs, businesses, communities and whanau working together. By opening up data, government demonstrates (by reducing information asymmetry) that they are committed to working with others parties in an equal partnership.

Secondly, the increased transparency and accessibility of government data will increase the level of trust that citizens have in government. Trust is our “bottom line” - the foundation of the democratic process, the core value espoused by the State Services, and an area for continuous investment if we are to maintain our position of world leadership. Further insight into this can be found in the Transparency 2.0 article in Transparency and Open Government.

Remember: Reinventing government is too important to be left to government.