PDF Europe round up

Given that I am on the way to the opening sessions of the much anticipated CityCamp London this is a sprint roundup on PDF Europe first – all the conference details are here so that I can get on and enjoy the next event.

Europetitions – yes its petitions – for Europe

One of the reasons I went to the conference was to run a panel on the Europetitions Service (www.europetition.eu) so I feel obliged to get a plug in here for that – and if you are really interested you can view the slides.  Europetitions has a few ambitions:

  • Making it easy to connect petitions from different member states to join up and petition the European Parliament
  • Combining this with petitioning at a local level so that the citizen has access to multiple tiers of government from the same place
  • Provide a good democratic experience to anyone signing or creating a petition

One of the excellent things about EU funded projects is the emphasis on proper evaluation and we will be publishing formal results of what has been a very successful project at the end of the year.

I participated via twitter in a debate about the ECI which is fairly related to the Europetitions work – would recommend you read about this here – and this helped me articulate a bit further how I feel about the ECI:  its potentially a very powerful democratic instrument but if we want to unleash it we need to make it happen ourselves as there is no-one in Brussels who seems to be getting on with it properly at present.

Meeting some unusual suspects

But the other reason I went (apart from the natural lure of Barcelona which is just lovely) was as a chance to meet a completely different network of people interested in civic uses of technology and the PDF folks certainly delivered on that as it was a completely different perspective on the space we work in – turns out this was both a good and a bad thing….star turns first:

I have to insist that you all read this fantastic post (which he based his session on) from John Tolva who works on data modelling and decision making for smart cities – a proper thoughtful and sophisticated look at how we can effectively use data to help make decisions.  Stand out quote for me is “Data alone is not sufficient for problem-solving, but an involved community informed with data just might be. “ though who could not love “Cities have always been proto-internets of connection and communication.”.

I also enjoyed a short piece from Jenni Wolfson – MD of http://witness.org/ – which gave a really nuances view of how user generated content and sharing needs to be considered in the context of human rights – lots to learn here.

And I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Jimmy Leach Head of Digital Engagement, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, UK – speak as it was an opportunity to hear about social media being used as part of a properly integrated strategy with humour and authenticity – really great.

I can’t improve on a comment from @allisonhornery “Absolutely transfixed by Marko Rakar from Croatia at #pdfeu – humble, humourous and a genuine agent of change”.  Marko is a democracy campaigner in his native Croatia and has an amazing biography.  For all of us worried about democracy in the UK we should put it into context as his first and major issue was the fact that his country has more voters than citizens.

Democracy ought to be better

I also always enjoy hearing Paul Johnston from Cisco speak as he is another thoughtful, balanced presenter who spent some time pointing out that we really need to look at changing our policy making processes if we want to avoid the poor civil servants being overwhelmed with a mass of poorly though out ideas.  I rather agree that it might be useful to spend more time on this part of the process rather than the constant focus on getting more ideas in the first place.  Its not usually ideas which are lacking – its thought out, thorough and achievable ideas and this is what a proper deliberative policy making process should bring.

This thought about building policy was balanced by an engaging presentation by Jeremy Heimans of http://www.purpose.com/ who has been part of the creation of a number of campaigning movements.  I have some concerns with the fragmentary nature of a purely campaigning rather than community response to engagement but Jeremy’s work is clearly effective and usually well targeted – the question for me is how we establish a relationship between this and democratic deliberation and decision making.

Which is why I also enjoyed spending time with Anthony from The Democratic Society (quite apart from his expertise on good eating places in Barcelona).  I am a governor of DemSoc because I think there is a need to spend more time focusing on how social change effects democracy – will blog properly about this soon.

Open data – and then stand well back

Open data was another big theme for me – its a good topic for an international conference as its so clearly a global issue if you extend and look at in terms of needed a fundamentally free internet in order to really deliver free data. When you spend any time thinking about this stuff it becomes so clear that you really can’t base your data or your democracy on commercially closed systems like facebook and twitter and that democracy demands openness.  However – open data needs to show actual benefits to become part of the culture of government – and while we rely on volunteers to do this its a big ask to get real sustainable benefits from open data and so we need to think about how we support it.  At the same time we need to demand that politicians are ready to take consequences as well as benefits of technology and openness after election promises fade away and its there own data that we are talking about.

Some of the speakers in this area included an excellent Evgeny Morozov who delightfully and acerbically pointed out that Open data should start with laws – and that it’s a little more substantial than 140 character populism.  Jérémie Zimmermann was excellent on the reasons why we need an open internet – it was good to see reasoned arguemnet and passion rather than just a demand for stuff to be free.

Håkon Wium Lie – Chief Technology Officer, Opera Software, Norway – was another highlight.  As someone who worked on the internal working of the web from the start his view on the design priotiries around openness and the implications of making it happen showed how deeply embedded the idea of openness is into the web.  We need to take advantage of this now rather than working to design it out.

Facebook and World Peace

Now – anyone who has spoken to me since the conference will know exactly how amused I was by the presentation from Facebook on the subject or world peace and the idea that because people are ‘friending’ each other over cultural and conflict barriers we might be able to achieve world peace in 5 years…..and I have deliberately put this comment after the open data section just to add a little frisson of extra irony here.  Clearly – the stats and the ideas here were shaky at best and dangerous at worst and the perky ‘awesomeness’ of it made me feel extra English throughout the experience.  I thought the moderator made a good stab at gently pointing out that these people might be using ‘friend’ and ‘like’ because those are the only options and the Facebook rep did agree that more work could be done on the terms.  However – couple of actual points here:

  • Facebook is of a scale and impact now that we ought to be legislating for its data to be open in the same way as government is being pushed to be open – and we also need to enforce some privacy rules at the same time.  Good luck with that
  • Its great that the team at Facebook want to do projects on this scale but I would like some reassurance that they are talking to external experts rather than rather arrogantly relying on their internal expertise.  If they are the 3rd largest country then they need to start sending out diplomatic missions

All rather alarming to be honest.


In conclusion – really good conference and I will be keen to go again.  However, I have just highlighted from the programme and overall there was a preponderance of youngish blokes with GREAT ideas and I would like to see more balance in terms of gender and also in terms of depth of practitioner experience.  Too many platforms and not enough impact analysis.  The organisers took this feedback very gracefully of course and I will make an effort to suggest more names for next year.

One of the reasons for saying this is that it is not the tools that matter – it’s the communities around them and the speed that they can form that make the difference.  I want to see communities and impacts at the heart of this conversation rather than the technology that can make it happen.

Right – signing off and now concentrating on CityCamp – bring it on!

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