Notes Information Apocalypse

E-Government Bar Camp Wrap

It's been a long long time since I've participated in hours and hours of such lively and (mostly) positive discussion. I have to echo Mike's view that Wellington is one of the only places where something like this would be possible, where we have such a close relationship between private agencies, high level government and grass-roots community groups. It was fascinating to see representatives from competing companies and their clients (indeed, many of my own past clients!) all engaged for the same purpose.

Jo, Thomas, Mike, Sandy, Jim, and Julian have jotted down summaries from much of the discussion. Unfortunately I missed out on Mathew's talk about multi-mime love and 'one format to rule them all' (see Docvert, a project I even contributed some code to once upon a time), and I also missed Brian's talk about Lust, Courtship, and Conflict, which sounded like it had a very positive response from agency/vendor representatives, surprise surprise.

The Microformats discussion was fascinating. Geoff and Pete provided a smart practical introduction for those who weren't familiar with the concept, and there was a lot of debate surrounding the utility and value of uF encoded data, compared to alternatives like RDFa or even RSS/Atom. The key point that I wanted to emphasize was that Microformats don't change any existing practices or require new endpoints to be created - they simply leverage information on existing webpages and pack well defined data along in a human readable context. Deb, Brian, and several others were concerned about how authoring tools manage uF's and how to explain them to non-HTML aware editors. This relates to a perennial problem with the uF way, it boils down to the chicken and egg fable - without tools available it is very difficult to communicate the value of semanticizing HTML but until there are larger amounts of uF marked up pages, there's no value in creating such tools. But as we see Google starting to embrace Microformats (++), there is now a very clear value proposition. We all agreed that designers and content editors need to be aware of the possibilities - that pushing Microformats onto a website doesn't have to involve permission from on-high or any strategic objectives. It just requires content managers to be aware of a couple of small implementation details and to use their initiative when developing HTML. I talked to Jason Ryan from SSC, and he has already been doing it! No fuss or song and dance, just an iterative evolution towards more semantic HTML. I like this approach, and hopefully more government agencies can learn from the strides that Jason and Pete have been making in this space recently.

After lunch it was time to hunker down for some big-picture AllOfGovtSpace thinking, following on from topics discussed at GOVIS. Julian gave a fascinating overview of some work he has been doing on federated taxonomy and open data in the conservation and biosecurity space. Big questions surrounding ownership of taxpayer funded data. The problem is perhaps not as pronounced in the bio realm, because scientific data is empirical (within reasonable limits), so represents a kind of persistent truth that can exist in one place and doesn't represent commercial interests. The difference between 'open' and 'free' - the government can make flora and fauna data publicly available, but shouldn't necessarily be providing the precise geo-coordinates of certain species of fungi to the information seeking public (to give just one example). Julian's work was a great example of how domain specific thinking can lead to more general possibilities for all of government revealing themselves. This segued into a freeform rantstorm on privacy commons, open data, standards and identity, which was mad complicated and highly informative. The implications are both exciting and terrifyingly Orwellian. Mike Pearson and Robert O'Brien seem to have spent a lot of time thinking and discussing these topics, but I still came away unsure of just how much of a Big Brother state can be bootstrapped from this technology. Hopefully not as invasive as it could be, but we need smart and well informed people involved in the process with vigilant attitudes so as not to let the technology run away with us. Mike and Julian were both sketching on a tool called MindMeister - another Web 2.0 gimmick that is all too easy to overlook until you see someone in person using the tool to its full potential. See Mike's Map and Julian's Map, especially the parts about government controlling your most intimate personal information. Marek threw a few ideas about OpenID into the mix, and we wondered about the possibility of a citizenship based OpenID namespace for all New Zealanders. Thomas remarked that the TNZ marketing people had once thrown about the idea of providing an email address for everyone in NZ under the domain. Classic!

My presentation came closer to the end and went really well - everyone who turned up was genuinely interested in the topic and provided huge amounts of insight. I really enjoy having ideas critiqued on the spot as it forces me to really think about whether the idea itself is flawed or whether I have just communicated it poorly - something that is just not possible with a one-way push-it-out-there style of publishing. The idea of residents having the ability to choose how a portion of their rates gets spent was unanimously popular - in fact everyone I talked to over the whole day really wanted to be able to do this, which suggests that Callum should really do a bit more research surrounding council budgets and release some kind of media statement about this... For me, I was mostly looking for opinions about what kind of community projects or features would be important for a localized neighborhood network. In particular, the topic of Civil Defence planning and preparedness catalyzed a range of interesting thoughts - we all agreed that very few people are well enough informed about what to do in the event of a catastrophic earthquake in Wellington. We managed to find the locations of Civil Defence Centers on the WCC maps website and Zoomin has several too, but there was no surrounding information or context that we could access, and there are large areas of the city that appear to be quite far away from these centers. Local online social networks would be a great way to organize and coordinate crisis relief efforts between centers and could utilize solar powered generators and robust mesh networks to stay online in the event of a mainline electricity failure. This also led to the suggestion of another potential use for the public property development information that I discussed - being able to access the most up-to date information available of structural risks for all the buildings in Wellington. Following from themes discussed earlier in the day, we wondered how much of this technology would actually need to be run by the council, and how much could be developed independently by third party hackers. I used the example of Oakland Crimespotting to illustrate the possibility of independent networks being able to extract geographic data from less than usable data sources (ie: information feeds need not be restricted to XML/RSS sources). One popular idea seems to be that of an aggregator for public consultation and development submissions along the lines of what TheyWorkForYou is doing in the legislative space. Obviously getting the official buy-in from the council is incredibly important, especially to do with regulating rates expenditure, but the boundary of where the council influence should stop and where third-parties should start doing their thing is incredibly fuzzy.

By this point in proceedings of course, we were all incredibly worn out and had degenerated from high level intellectual discussion to just cackling incoherently to each other. But before we were allowed to go to the pub, we had to endure a "what next" brainstorm in small groups. Of course, our group had the most innovative and world changing ideas of all.

Thanks to Fronde, Mike R for the kick that got the ball rolling, and to all the sponsors, especially Google, who enabled us to eat and drink afterwards. As a number of people mentioned in the wrap up, we can't just be talking about these things, we actually have to start doing them. Not next week or next year. Now!