Race Online 2012 launched today: future challenges and ideas

12 07 2010

Today Martha Lane Fox, the UK’s Digital Champion, launched the ‘Race Online 2012’ manifesto, the aim of which is to get millions online by the end of 2012. 10 million UK citizens (the combined population of our five largest cities) have never used the internet, and with this in mind, the manifesto aims to get everyone of working age online by the end of this parliament, to ensure that all may enjoy the benefits of the web upon retirement.

This recent development raises some pertinent questions- for example, should internet access be a human right? According to a BBC World Service poll of more than 27,000 adults in over 26 countries, almost four in five people around the world believe that access to the internet should be a fundamental right. Access has already been ruled as a human right in Estonia and Finland, and according to the aforementioned BBC research, 75% of Britons would like to see internet access as a fundamental right, perhaps indicating that steps to enshrine access as a right in law would be welcomed by the majority. This would furthermore send a strong signal from the top that internet access is no longer viewed as a luxury but as a necessity for citizens to fully participate in modern UK society.

In addition, these developments raise further possibilities for the Coalition government’s drive to cut costs and improve efficiency- there is a plethora of evidence that by, where possible, moving government functions online, a huge amount of money could be saved. The manifesto launched today, the full version of which is here, estimates that ‘if all currently offline adults began using the internet and made just one online contact each month with government instead of a telephone or face-to-face contact it would save an estimated £900m per annum’.

Questions have been raised over whether these pledges can be supported by the current broadband infrastructure, and although roughly 90% of homes can readily get a broadband connection at 2Mbps or higher and UK prices are now among the lowest in the world, questions remain about how much the government can do, beyond supporting commitments to ensure a universal service level of 2Mbps as the very minimum that should be available. While it is true that it is impossible (and indeed, undesirable) to force people to go online, the focus of Race Online 2012 is far more on positively encouraging this group to explore the huge benefits that the internet can bring- for example, ‘older women who have family overseas’ or ‘men over 45 who like football’. One of the key challenges, as raised by the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones, is how these pledges can be fulfilled without government money.

Charlotte Jee                (@charlottejee)

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Recent developments in the transparency revolution

21 06 2010

First estimates, released by the government on Friday 18th June, have revealed that 640,000 people are employed by central government, and an additional 20,000 are contractual or temporary staff. Francis Maude (Minister for the Cabinet Office) commissioned the exercise to estimate employee numbers, but emphasised that the figures are not yet official statistics.

In a press release on the same day, Francis Maude stressed his ‘absolute commitment to pushing forward with the Government’s transparency agenda’. He pointed out that while the figures released so far are ‘raw and incomplete’, the government will eventually professionalise and better organise the release of data. He also reiterated that the government has ‘promised to keep pushing forward with this agenda and use every opportunity to let the public know what’s really happening in government, even when the information is not perfect’.

A further development in the past week is the appointment of Martha Lane Fox (co-founder of lastminute.com) as UK Digital Champion. Her role will be to ‘encourage as many people as possible to go online’, and improve the convenience and efficiency of the public sector by promoting online services. Ms Lane Fox stated that it was her ‘mission’ to reach out to the 10 million adults who have not yet used the internet.

David Cameron stated: ‘I am delighted that Martha Lane Fox will be our Digital Champion, encouraging more people to go online and access the information and services they need. Getting online can help people save money, find a job, access services in a way that works for them, and make connections with each other and with their community. It will also help us all to drive down the cost of delivering public services.’

In a further development, the transparency revolution has reached Holyrood, which has started to set a precedent for other UK administrations by publishing every piece of monthly expenditure in excess of £25,000. On Friday 18th June, the Scottish government released all spending over that limit for April. The finance spokesman, Derek Brownlee, commended the changes in the following statement:  ‘This is a transparency revolution. It will transform the relationship between government, public bodies and the taxpayer who foots the bill.’

Charlotte Jee             (@charlottejee)





Weekly round-up on Government Transparency

14 06 2010

On Thursday 10th June the government released new details about special advisers and civil servants and the exact salaries of those earning above £58,200. The details released included the pay of Andy Coulson (Downing Street Director of Communications), who topped the bill with a salary of £140,000.

On the same day, and in a further extension of the spirit of transparency that is sweeping the upper echelons of government, Chris Huhne hailed the decision of the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Home Office to ‘displaying their energy use in real-time, on-line, for the first time’. The recent move to display real-time online energy use in the departments is part of the Government’s commitment to cut carbon emissions from central government by 10% in the next year. This recent development follows on from PM David Cameron’s announcement of the policy on 14th May. Watch this space as we expect further departments to follow suit.

In an interview on Monday 14th, Jeremy Hunt (Culture Secretary) stated that while he cannot dictate wages within the BBC, there should be ‘full transparency’. In the past Mr. Hunt has complained about the 382 managers earning more than £100,000, a view he confirmed in his Guardian interview, saying ‘we want better value for money from the BBC’.

Charlotte Jee   (@charlottejee)





The latest on the drive for government transparency and open data

7 06 2010

On 4th June, the government opened its books and released the entire contents of the Combined Online Information System (COINS) for the previous two financial years:

International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell delivered a speech at the Royal Society with Oxfam and Policy Exchange on 3rd June announcing the creation of a new independent watchdog to regulate spending. Mitchell stated that ‘British taxpayers will see exactly how and where overseas aid money is being spent’, as set out in the new ‘UKaid transparency guarantee’.

On 4th June the Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles urged Councils to follow central government’s lead and publish all spending over £500 as part of a government-wide transparency and open data drive. This decision will not be enforced by law but the government has warned that ‘measures will be taken’ against uncooperative councils. Local government spending should be freely available in the public domain by January 2011.

Eric Pickles announced the policy on 5th June in an article in the Telegraph.

The BBC used this topic for a lively Have Your Say open discussion where people were invited to put forward their views on whether transparency will restore in government.

Charlotte Jee ( @charlottejee )





Government Transparency: Some Key Coalition Events

2 06 2010

PM David Cameron wrote a letter on Monday 31st May to government departments launching a ‘week  of open data’ and setting out ‘new standards for transparency’ in government, outlining the government’s initial plans to publish online central government contracts, new items of government spending over £25,000, civil servants’ wages,  crime data, amongst other items. The letter also announces the establishment of a ‘Public Sector Transparency Board’, to be chaired by Francis Maude MP, which will support these plans and have a responsibility for ‘setting open data standards across the public sector’. The full text of the letter is here.

On the same day (31st May), Francis Maude (Minister for the Cabinet Office) oversaw the publication of the salaries of the 172 highest-paid civil servants earning over £150,000. This was welcomed by Matthew Elliott, the Chief Executive of the Taxpayers’ Alliance:

In response to the publication of the wages of the highest-paid in the civil service, Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, called for greater public sector pay discipline:

Cameron’s first podcast as PM, recorded on Saturday 29th May, largely focussed on the issue of government transparency, hailing it as an initiative that will help restore public faith in politicians, allow the public to hold government to account and aid the government in its attempts to increase efficiency and save money. The transcript is here. The BBC covered the story here.

Francis Maude announced the start of a new era of transparency in government in this article in the Telegraph on Sunday 30th May.

Charlotte Jee ( @charlottejee )





Why Daily Opinion Polling Matters

2 06 2010

This piece first appeared here.

The modern world feels more connected than ever before: a single message can be conveyed thousands of miles to millions of people at minuscule cost. With all this information flowing around, how can we discover what people think? Are more regular surveys the answer?

Long-term trends and short-term fluctuations. Communication, social change, technological advancement, and economic development: these all happen much more quickly than the research world is accustomed to. It can take so long to discover what people think, they may well have changed their view by the time conclusions can be drawn, or the question may no longer apply in the same way.

  1. Daily polling can keep up with the fastest trends and will never go out-of-date. It may take six polls to track a change in opinion – if this only occurs over a six-month period, the change may have been and gone by the time traditional polls could have measured it. Daily polling will measure these longer term changes precisely, as well as collecting enough data to identify shorter term changes as they happen.

You are like your group. Constant communication might give us the potential to talk to anyone, but in reality we actually just talk more often to people who are like us and tend to hold views similar to our own. We know even less of what people think outside of our own group than we did before, as more intensive interaction within our groups reinforces our views further.

  1. Daily polling is nationally representative, so reflects the views of the entire nation; it acts as a mirror to the whole of society, rather than just the part to which you belong. This gives a sense of perspective and broader understanding of people who exist outside your immediate surroundings.

Opinion belongs to the people. Politicians and the media no longer holds the monopoly on the means of distribution of news, opinion, and data. Disintermediation is an irreversible trend.

  1. Daily polling takes this trend a stage further by reflecting the public’s opinion back to itself without any editorial direction or spin from media organisations, political parties, or interested businesses. This was clearly seen after the leaders’ debates as there was not time for the party spin doctors to influence the public’s perception of the debate before the winner was declared. Daily polling is a core part of interactive democracy.

Narrative. We understand the world through stories, and the current ‘glimpses’ that conventional polling and research provide incomplete and inconsistent evidence from which to create these stories. Social media provides unrepresentative data (opinions on twitter come from a specific sub-group within the UK population), and is focussed on specific topic areas (there are lots of people talking about celebrities online, far fewer about pensions).

  1. Daily polling provides a vast body of evidence from which we can construct credible and insightful public narratives, circumscribing the role of rumour, baseless prediction, and conjecture. We provide the raw data from which anyone can build a 3D picture of life as it is lived, and as it changes. We poll on a broad range of important topics, and provide a large volume of robust data

Precedent. Governmental approval ratings are a core part of public life in the United States. They provide a profound sense that the government is always accountable to the people (rather than just once every five years).

  1. The British Government is not yet used to this kind of scrutiny, which has been a contributing factor to the sense of disconnect between parliament and the public. As Rousseau put it: “The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during election of members of parliament; as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved; it is nothing.” Our polling data could be used to change this.

Routine. Polls at the moment are treated with a mixture of suspicion and derision. They are sporadic, difficult to place in a appropriate context, and too thinly-spread to interpret as part of a broader narrative.

  1. Daily polls will become a part – but only a part – of the public discourse. Regularity will mean that we lose some of the poll hysteria from which we currently suffer. Daily polling’s unique strength as an identifier of both short-term fluctuations and long-term trends will become a predictable source of reliable information for the public debate. They will form part of the picture of public reality, embedded within other models.

Ali Unwin ( @aliunwin )





The Role of the Mainstream Media

26 04 2010

The Death of Old Media is a staple conversation for the online community. Most conversations will contain some permutation of the following phrases: depressed circulation; content delivery disintermediation; community journalists; blogger commentariat; low barriers to sharing; virality; power of networks; online penetration.

Against such a flood of buzzwords, what chance has the Mainstream Media (‘MSM’, natch)?

The shoots of a new Mainstream Media are slowly emerging, however. The ‘solution’, or at least part of it, will come from the major media outlets doing more of what they are good at, and less of what they are not.

This will mean using a combination of an authoritative, trusted brand; talented writers and researchers; and taking a more educative role. We may see more projects like the excellent Channel 4 Factcheck, Guardian Datastore, and CIF’s ‘How to Believe‘ series.

In an excellent post on the Datablog, Simon Rogers writes:

“This means that every statistical claim, every announcement of new money and every off-the-cuff remark can be comprehensively analysed and taken apart in a thousand homes.

We’re now part of that process. For the last year the Guardian‘s Datablog has published raw data every day on the big issues. We put the information out there using Google spreadsheets (because it’s easy for anyone to download the data) and we encourage our users to take the information and build graphics and applications with it.”

Ali Unwin ( @aliunwin)