Apr 202012

Kevin suggests that what the lobbying scandals need are an improved political class.  He writes interestingly when he says:

The correct place to start is to recognise that most MPs – in all parties – are pretty straight. Let’s encourage them to know their own minds a bit more. And let’s provide them with proper independent policy support to help them formulate their own positions on the key issues.

One observation before we continue: whilst I agree that most MPs are likely to be straight, I am inclined also to believe that the higher up the greasy pole they get, the less straight they become.  This is a serious issue, of course, because the higher up they are, the more disproportionate their influences.

Anyhow.  Kevin continues to write interestingly when he concludes the following (the bold is mine):

The conspiracy theorists and gesture politics mob who want to choke-off lobbying will simply fail to do so if ministers come forward with weak measures, or we will see our democracy asphyxiated if they come forward with clumsy, catch-all ones.

But let’s use this moment to change politics as much as lobbying. Unless we beef-up our MPs’ ability to shape the policy agenda, rather be shaped by lobbyists of whatever hue, we will have missed a trick.

And the bottom feeders of the lobbying world will get away scot-free when this latest, predictable and toothless attempt to clean-up the industry fails to do just that.

I said much the same thing when I suggested the following recently, with respect to the related subject of party political funding and PR.  Which is precisely why I argued in favour of a system whereby customers of companies could decide whether to make a purchase on the basis of a traffic-light labelling system which explained how much an organisation was spending on funding and PR per political party.  In fact, I expanded on the theme in another post the other day on the subject of a US site called sopatrack.com.  Here, tools which scrape publicly available data help determine which US congressmen and women vote “with the money” – money the wider constituents of the American Congress may raise for their own, often grubby, purposes.

The virtues of the above two ideas?  Both of them give back to the voters the knowledge that translates into power – without requiring the current political class to change, a priori, its behaviours.  The only legislation we would actually need would be freedom of information powers to access the necessary datasets where access did not currently exist.  Not a small order, I do have to accept – but far easier an order to define and delimit than the diffuse desire to do something about political corruption.

So whilst Kevin is right – we do need a political class with more backbone (which, as he rightly points out, does imply independent means to study  matters of modern import accurately and objectively) – the constituency he misses out of the equation, the voters themselves, also needs a greater capacity to oversee what’s going on.

And the tools I mention above, providing not a political straitjacket but rather constructive carrots and sticks, could achieve just that.

Apr 182012

Ever wondered how those conflicted confusions of politicos with vested interests might already be affecting our democracy?  Whilst Éoin speaks of “sleeper cells” in Clinical Commissioning Groups throughout the NHS, and expresses his unhappiness with great precision, the US has had a rather longer history of such organised pork-barrel politics.  Which does, in fact, give them an advantage in some matters as the Internet’s myriad of tools allows the people in some way to strike back.

This, then, in my opinion anyhow, really does deserve to be imported from the States.  More about it here and reproduced in full below:


I launched Sopatrack in late December, 2011. At the time, SOPA and PIPA were being rushed through Congress without public debate. There was major, one-sided funding for these issues, and it was alarming how much traction that could get.

Sopatrack had a few goals:

  1. Help voters find their local congresspeople on any connected device
  2. Allow voters to contact their members of Congress by phone or social networking site
  3. Show whether a congressperson supported or opposed this issue
  4. Show how much money the congressperson raised both for and against SOPA/PIPA

The site was immediately popular, with lots of press coverage including The Atlantic, Mashable, Lifehacker, and Hacker News. Twitter, Facebook, and Google drove the majority of the traffic, which peaked at over 40,000 unique daily visitors on key days around the issues.

The wider internet community also rose up, and Congress eventually tabled these bills. Great sites like SOPA Opera were developed, and ultimately Google, Wikipedia, and Reddit staged major actions so that their users would understand the issue. The resources of SunlightLabs, MapLight, and OpenSecrets were hugely helpful to developers and voters.

But there was still more data on other bills, and I wondered what Sopatrack would look like if automatically applied to all bills.

And so it is that we get the new Sopatrack:

How does Fundraising Impact Congress?

The new Sopatrack has the same goals as the original, except that it will work across all bills in the 112th Congress with contribution data from MapLight. Since there’s more data across more issues, the site also tracks how often a congressperson votes on the side of the greater contributions. Individual positions on pre-vote issues will not be tracked.

The votes with the money percentage is also applied to each state for all their congresspeople, and to all Congress.

A brilliant use of public data: follow the people who follow the money, analyse how this affects the way they vote – and make the information available to everyone.  With such a simple and manifestly open system as this, we don’t need to ban lobbyists; we don’t need to pass legislation; we don’t need – a priori – the politicians to change anything they’re already doing right now.  All we need to do is harness a kind of consumer value-for-money instinct and give the voters the data they need to decide on their lonesomes who should deserve our approval and who our disapprobation.

And if shame doesn’t change how politics is conducted, datasets such as these will surely have some sort of beneficial impact in other ways with an evermore tech-savvy public.

As I suggested recently in relation to political funding, approaches which pull together disparate but publicly available information – and then disseminate equally publicly this information about how our politicians and their supporters behave – might have more chances of changing cultures than self-administered and half-hearted patches to the weary body politic; patches which, in any case, the politicians will always find a way of working around and undermining.

If the latest memes and buzzwords in social media involve using the Twitter firehose and similar sets of information to analyse the voting public into submission, why not turn the tables on the politicians and their marketers and use the same tools to analyse the latter into acquiring good and democratic behaviours?

In the light of reports such as Éoin’s tonight, it’s high time we considered doing something similar to Sopatrack here in Britain.

Anyone up for it?

That is to say, anyone up for saving our democracy from the people who follow the money instead of our interests?

Apr 112012

Whilst I did a piece recently on the real origins of content “piracy”, Paul currently has a lovely piece over at Never Trust a Hippy on the real origins of copyright.  Interestingly, a commenter responds thus:

Another example of ideas being far older than one thought

And here, in far fewer words than I could ever manage, is the prime justification for there existing a public domain into which all thought finally ends up residing.

This is what I recently had to say on the subject:

[…] I appreciate the need for reasonable periods of copyright, but before we support “original works” we have to understand the process that leads to their creation – and recognise what any creator owes to a previous generation of creators. There is now a massive hole in the public domain, absolutely unheard of in previous times, where nothing but nothing can legally be done to have a creative conversation with, for example, the film industry – an industry which has appropriated with every moral and legal right to do so public domain works from the 19th century for its own wonderful purposes but has refused to return its own property created thus back to the public domains of the 20th and 21st centuries.

And whilst those who are unhappy with related Google-like dynamics may indeed have a complex case to answer, we shouldn’t mix what are essentially issues of trademark and/or copyright law with matters that relate to the almost social contract that is the public domain.

I read an interesting piece in the Guardian yesterday whilst waiting for a train at Oxenholme in the Lake District.  It was arguing that the research of publicly-funded scientists should end up – as soon as practicable – in the public domain via the legal figure of open access.  As the scientific journals and their publishers added very little real value to the scientific process, and in the meantime through their paywalls made access to new ideas evermore expensive and distant (I remember a calculation made by Lawrence Lessig recently which had him hunting down online documents to allow him to understand a family member’s illness better – if he hadn’t have been a top scholar at a US university, it would have cost him over $400 to access the information), so the argument in terms of a societal benefit to automatically place in the public domain such publicly-funded data has become considerably stronger.

But I’d go even further – as you jolly well might expect.  I’d argue that such principles should not only be applied to publicly-funded scientists but also to all elected figures who reach positions of prominence or otherwise on the backs of the voters.  Without the voters and their desire to delegate responsibility, a prime minister or secretary of state would be absolutely nothing politically speaking.  When politicians give exclusive interviews to national newspapers and other media, such organisations hug very close to themselves the content thus generated.  But, in reality, they have no right to at all: arguably the words and thoughts and ideas of our politicians already belong, in very strict measure, to ourselves:

David Cameron wants to snoop into your emails, SMS text messages and telephone calls. He is bringing forward powers to enhance the big brother state in exactly the opposite way he said he would do when he was opposition leader. But guess what, I have news for Mr Cameron. In 3 days time, I discover whether or not I will be given the right to snoop into his SMS text messaging. […]

This does, of course, have implications for open government movements across the world.  But it is only the application of a very simple and fair principle: what you get out of the system, at some in the (near and reasonable) future you put back in.

As they say: what goes around, comes around.

So why should copyright, scientists, public figures and the public domain be any different?

Apr 022012

Why should I say that?  I don’t mean from a technical point of view, of course.  Watching or interrupting people’s access to websites and general Internet activity is surely the daily stuff of what GCHQ is supposed to do.

So I don’t mean all that kind of thing when I ask the question in the title of the post.  I mean, rather, the Internet’s political dynamics: how a million clever eyes react to a perceived threat to their environment as might a flock of birds.  The web’s ability to bring to the surface a bright (or subversive) idea – which then proceeds to quickly propagate itself – is hardly a new thought to keep our virtual minds engaged.  Here’s one from this morning which, for example, leads me to such conclusions.  On the back of prior tweets which suggest we should voluntarily forward all our communications to existing government email addresses, we then get this intriguing idea:

#TellDaveEverything Let’s all join the campaign and cc every email we send to david.cameron@number10.gov.uk

Whilst not inclined myself to participate in such a campaign, it does, as I said earlier, make me wonder if anyone in government, the civil service or even our blessed security services understands anything at all about how the dynamics of web interaction really operate.

Surely any ordinary user of the web with a little bit of Internet nous could imagine that if a government which in a space of two weeks has just penalised four million middle-class pensioners for being pensioners; raised the standard of living for only the very richest in the country; increased the cost of using the postal service; increased the cost of cheap hot food for particularly the poorer in society; told people to go out, fill up with and store jerrycanned petrol (possibly illegally), an act which then led to widespread panic over fuel supplies; apparently encouraged ministers to believe a bit of petrol panic wouldn’t actually be a bad thing; and had a co-treasurer of its party resigning for promising ministerial access in exchange for hundreds of thousand of pounds … well, that a government like this should then proceed to propose a policy whereby every Internet interaction and transaction would be automatically observed by the selfsame government can surely only be interpreted as an example of sheer political madness and incompetence.  The kind of behaviours, in fact, which in quite different contexts, and in any private company worth its salt, would lead to an immediate disciplinary.

And after a correctly due process, properly defended by the unions these incompetents so despise, a presumably summary sacking.

Thatcher had the unions to vanquish – which she did.

What Cameron hasn’t realised, however, is that his turn won’t be the unions.  This won’t be a replay of either Thatcherism or Blairism.  The way things are going and the foolishness with which the government proposes and disposes will surely, predictably and quite sadly mean if Cameron wants to win the next election, he’ll have to beat the Internet itself.

Cameron’s battle won’t be with Unite.  Cameron’s battle will be with a million crowdsourced eyes.  No centralised bureaucracy you can either strategically flatfoot or charm with beer and sandwiches.  Just a decentralised yearning for true freedom of expression and communication.  As well as its fair dollop of truly bad faith.

And how on earth can the centralising instincts of this evermore foolish Coalition manage to conceive a policy capable of properly containing that?

We’re not talking of technologies any more, dear friends at GCHQ.  We’re talking of millions of people getting sincerely pissed off by a government which deliberately doesn’t care to care.

Here’s a suggestion, then – before you go ahead and legislate.  Don’t change the legislation to force your people into pigeonholes many of them will, in any case, learn to escape.  Change the government’s direction in order that the people want to get voluntarily onside.

Simples, eh?  Well, that’s the way it seems to me.

But then I am a naive kind of soul.  And in my own foolish way, I still – after all the above – strive to believe in the essential goodness of humankind.

Feb 142012

The issue of Freedom of Information today can be summarised in the following question: whenever did it mean placing a civil servant between the data in question and the citizens with a right to access it?  Answer that question – and you’re a big part of the way along the path to answering the issues of modern democracy.

Freedom of Information legislation exists in many countries in the world.  Where it exists – and this involves mediating via the civil services of such regimes a relationship between such data and the citizens looking to use it – I’d be inclined, however, to see it becoming a failure and bulwark against a proper and structured connection between voters and the acts and decision-making processes of their governments.

With online access becoming so cheap and efficient, as well as so broadly available (and even as we must not neglect the possibilities for a digital divide arising), surely it is now time to reconceptualise Freedom of Information legislation in terms not of the rights to and costs of requesting access to an expensive and overburdened civil service but – instead – more in relation to analysing the technological opportunities now available in assigning the flow of information – that is to say, the “when” and “how” – to an entirely voter-controlled sequence of processes.

In order to achieve this we would, of course, have to classify by default the vast majority of government information to the setting of “open”.  But as the world outside traditional governance is becoming accustomed to the idea of a total lack of anonymity and privacy, surely it is time we became more consequential in relation to what should be the foundations of good governance: as both a reflection of and a leader for all that is current in human trends.

If, in the outside world, governments will wish to begin eliminating privacy from all the exchanges that take place using the Internet, for whatever the reasons and rationales they offer (whether copyright or terrorism, whether cyber-crime or cyber-bullying), it would only be just and right for similar moves to take place with respect to our relationships to governments.

Which is why I strongly do feel the Ministry of Justice is wrong to say Freedom of Information is getting too expensive and needs to be charged for.

It should, on the other hand, be arguing that what’s really becoming too expensive is government’s fanatical desire to maintain privacy in a 21st century environment where openness, everywhere else, is becoming the desired norm.

Perhaps a classic example of blaming the interested voters for the self-inflicted costs of an unresponsive – as well as possibly self-interested – administration?

Aug 202011

The following all reminds me a little of www.neighborland.org (more here) – and just goes to show how innovative the US can be.

I guess “downtown” and “inner-city” don’t have exactly the same connotations – but even so, and despite the common language which all too often separates us, I think this article from Government in the Lab today fairly describes the virtues of a long-running American experience we could – and should – learn from here in Britain.  Especially in the light of the recent rioting and looting.

Not only is it not too long a read, it’s also very revealing.  So highly recommended to you all – and please don’t pass up the opportunity!

The closing paragraphs in particular grabbed my attention, as they cover off the importance of including both the involved and the disinterested when analysing the future needs of a community (the bold is mine):

How important is open source to local economic development efforts?

It’s huge. Because one of the biggest challenges (in terms of attracting companies to downtown) is lack of good information. The more transparent we are with a prospect interest in attracting a new business, the more successful we tend to be. When we don’t share information, they’ll find out later. There is a perception of urban areas being more dangerous, and our data helps to prove otherwise.


The people that were most passionate had the hardest time stepping away from it and couldn’t give us the insights that we eventually uncovered. The person with a loose association [to downtown] gave us better insight. This was an ah-ha moment. If you only involve the advocates, you don’t get the broader view. Participation from all made the information better.

This is surely something Ed Miliband’s plea for a “national conversation” post-English riots could contemplate in its remit.  As well as any government response which might emerge from the whole affair.

At their best, open source principles aim to apply the eyes of an observant and intelligent million to making better and continually improving products, services – and now even neighbourhoods.

Learning from other experiences – and the experiences of others – is one of the greatest skills humankind exhibits.

Let’s, then, try and see if we can do so in the aftermath of all this civil disturbance in England.  And do so from the most expansive and inclusive examples we can find – that is to say, from those very virtual and online sectors which have led the way in community collaboration for a more than startling decade.

Jul 162011

Here’s a thought: if we believe in transparency in government – and by extension in business, paid journalism, the Fifth Estate and other areas of important activity in our societies – we need to be able to measure its degree.  Only by benchmarking and comparing with real data to hand can we decide if we are achieving our goal.

I therefore suggest we create a system of tools which allows us to measure the degree of transparency within an organisation, institution, company or quango.  The ultimate measure of transparency I suggest should be thus: let us compare what a person outside the organisation knows about the truth of its functioning with what an ordinary worker inside the organisation is inevitably aware of (via that always judicious combination of official internal communications, the office grapevine and other such methods of information exchange).

And where the ratio is 1:1, we have a perfectly transparent organisation.

We could call this system of tools the “Inside-Person Index” – or IPI.

Now that, don’t you think, would be revolutionary.  The movement towards open data applied to the daily functioning of all organisations.  Then we’d have to compete not on the basis of a cartel of information expensively bought and sold but – rather – on the basis of easily comparable and contrastable data which would provide real-time knowledge about the efficiency of goods and services.

A bit like Amazon and a good search engine currently is for consumers – but, in this case, for all participants in almost any sociocultural intercourse.

What do you think?

Jun 212011

This, from a BBC report dated 6th June, on the hacking collective called Lulz:

Their success may have more to do with the security failings of their targets than it does with their command of computer code.

Meanwhile, also from the BBC but published today, we find out that a 19-year-old has been arrested in relation to alleged hacking activities

It does make me wonder, though.  If anyone really wanted to give the proponents of open government a hard time, they could do worse than support a wave of high profile website attacks such as those that companies like Sony and Nintendo have suffered over the past few months.  Making everyone wary of releasing official data to ordinary citizens wouldn’t, under such circumstances, be difficult to achieve – in what would be a miasma of confusing but scary messages.  It would also serve to make us forget – at least for the moment (though apparently not today) – the inevitable incompetence shown by authorities who choose to centralise massive amounts of significant data in the hope that no one will manage to find the keys to the kingdom.

On the other hand, we could just as easily argue the opposite: if data is so difficult to protect – if, indeed, everything is susceptible to being broken into – why not engender a shared culture of openness like nothing we have ever experienced before? 

Perhaps the cyber criminals need to be treated like drug barons: essentially cut off privileged access to products of choice by allowing us all to freely trade in the information which, to date, we’ve been so half-heartedly protecting.  In Norway, for example, I believe it is the custom to release financial data of all citizens on government websites.  We could do worse than to follow their example.  If we make our information less secret, if we create a society where hiding information is an exception to the rule, if – for example – we follow the WikiLeaks model, not only will the value of information for criminals drastically fall but it will also become far less necessary to keep it under competent lock and key.

We may – in the end – be driven to open government because we really have no practical alternative.