Q: What’s happening with the Power of Information agenda now, and perhaps offer some thoughts on how local government might take forward some of it recommendations. How are the ideas within Power of Information being developed at a local level? How do they link, if at all, to local initiatives such as Digital Districts or Citilab?
The power of information; the opportunity to make an informed choice; freedom to make use of easily available information for one’s own needs. Sounds ideal… perhaps?
However, the situation in the UK today sees us experiencing something quite different.
Lobbyists’ and activists are trying to persuade Central Government to make the information backbone of Britain’s established systems available for all to make use of. Whether this information is for research, design, build or demonstration, the common denominator in this entire process is resistance. Resistance to be open and sharing, resistance to change the historical way of working, resistance to accept that the gatekeepers no longer hold the keys.
MP’s expenses are just one example- there’s plenty more (see research notes).
“The Power of Information” is an independent review written in June 2007 by Ed Mayo and Tom Steinberg.
Since before its publication, there have been comments, responses and radical activist groups set up, all of whom have one common request: “Our taxes fund the collection of public data – yet we pay again to access it. Make the data freely available to stimulate innovation” argued Charles Arthur and Michael Cross (The Guardian, March 2006).
The combined forces of multiple voices, all repeating and relaying the same message is a growing movement in the UK. Figures such as Arthur, Cross, Watson, Perrin, Allen, Sommerville, Levandowski, Canning, Campbell, Payne, Ashton, Bounds, Sizemore and Clarke are just a few of the leaders, but there is an entire army of activists, all attempting to make data and information freely available, in an open source environment.
Notably, in the same month that Mayo and Steinberg released their publication, Hillary Armstrong, (Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster) responded by saying“If 30,000 parents were meeting in a park or football stadium to share information and tips about parenting, government would take notice.” (http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/media/cabinetoffice/corp/assets/publications/reports/power_information/power_information_response.pdf)
This draws direct relation to the Flashmob movement (Leadbeater, We Think, 2008)
Since June 2007, Lord Davies of Oldham published his response in the House of Lords (House of Lords Library, March 2008), then Watson responded immediately to that by being part of a small team that formed the Power of Information Task Force. Joining him were Loosemore, Perrin, and Allan, amongst others, many of whom are at the forefront of this radical movement today.
Time marched on, proposals were written, consultations and seminars took place, voices were heard, and then in June 2008, the Channel 4 initiative, 4iP was announced. The official launch of this fund took place at Hello Digital in October 2008. Then, immediately following this event, the term “Freedom of Information” became the new buzz phrase, one which many activist-led web platforms rely upon heavily.
Freedom: perhaps a potentially maverick, dangerous and challenging term in its own right.
It is this phrase that perhaps strikes fear into the power holders and gatekeepers in both Local and National Government. This in itself may be argued or considered a challenge to, and change in operating procedures, attitudes, practice and psychological power management, simply because the facts that underpin all official statements will potentially be available for public viewing and use.
Add to that the fact that many of the power holders are digital migrants, and their technical understanding of open data availability, and the repercussions of making that freely available, consideration should also be taken for the somewhat skeptical, nay prohibitive actions of those that currently hold office.
On the back of this movement, we have seen the launch of http://talkaboutlocal.com, http://helpmeinvestigate.com, http://www.dracos.co.uk/ and http://bccdiy.com. Interestingly, these four web-based activities are all running from a Birmingham base. There are more Nationally focused platforms (http:futuregovnetwork.com, http://www.showusabetterway.co.uk, http://www.theyworkforyou.com/ and http://www.mysociety.org/ ), all of which operate and revolve around the basic principle of sharing information and publicly owned data.
Fast-forward to July 2009. The Cabinet Office Strategy Unit published the white paper “Empowering citizens in the information age”
Some would consider that the summary contains positive news: “New technologies are providing opportunities to open up information as never before. Governments around the world are responding to this technological revolution by re-evaluating the approach they take to information transparency. The shift required, however, is more than just a technical one. The starting point for government in countries such as the USA, which are at the leading edge of information transparency, is that government information should be in the public domain and easily available for use and re-use by citizens. This approach is underpinned by freedom of information legislation and practices which actively promote openness in government. Across other countries, government cultures will similarly need to change, possibly prompted by changes in legislation.”
Consideration for the real benefits of the power of information will require culture change, perhaps not actually legislation, and not even significant amounts of extra financial support.
Strong leadership from politicians will be required certainly, but with good administration support and acceptance from Central Government of the benefits; using the information and data that exist, the improvement and change on the semantic web, and the influences and improvements this will bring to everyday life will be significant.
Relating this to Birmingham’s Digital Districts, the first phase of this development programme, which is closely linked to Birmingham’s Big City Plan, is one of open, accessible and effective communication network support. The internet pipes that serve the businesses and residents of the Eastside Regeneration area will be the backbone for which the information and data is shared.
Based on the easily available information and open data and the way it is used, will enable people to make whatever use they see fit for positive (and possibly negative) gain. The hopes of economic growth, community cohesion, information sharing, social gain and regional improvement are potentially what will drive the success of this initiative forwards.
Birmingham is internationally recognized as a leader in the field of digital innovation (Sion Simon, Minister for Culture and Creative Industries, October 2009). Taking into consideration the Birmingham-based radical activist developers mentioned above and more as yet unmentioned, the improved communications infrastructure will potentially enable the technical developers to innovate even further, making full use of the openly available data and information. It is hoped by the City, that this in turn will greatly assist the much-needed improvement of delivery of public sector services, highlighted in the Power of Information document (transport, health, education and more). This in turn, it is argued that (Shirky, 2009) “A revolution doesn’t happen when a society adopts new tools. It happens when society adopts new behaviours.” Cultural change, open sharing of information, cohesion; it could be argued that they are all inextricably linked, which leads me effectively onto another interesting idea; Citilab.
Based in a converted textiles factory in Cornella, Barcelona, Citilab first opened its doors in November 2007.
Supported by Local Government, industry and residents, it is not that the innovative nature of the centre, but how the long-standing cultural offering of the local people make this project successful.
Promotion of knowledge transfer, sharing and innovation are the key elements in operation here, all encompassing, participative and collaborative throughout. Delivering education in a digital age, innovation is linked to neighbourhoods, young people learn and share programming, robots are used for play, elderly citizens redesign their daily lives, with everyone participating using social media tools and technology when working together to form new types of audiovisual cultures. Local citizens, when coming into contact with people who share a common project, play a key role co-designing during the innovation process.
People and shared culture is what motivates them before the technology, the application of which only makes sense if it contributes to improving their way of life. Working together, sharing and cohesion is at the root of the social innovation and this is the spirit of all participants that make up the Citilab project, spreading their knowledge via open and easily accessible networks.
Learning and sharing is delivered by following the Massachusetts Institute of technology fluidity model, where participants are encouraged to have an open attitude to the constant adaptation to technology and developing thought structures, suitable for all generations to gain access to information, which is readily available.
However, there appears to be a significant difference in mainstream cultures between Barcelona and the UK. Traditional media is reportedly heavily monitored, with all content being created by the Spanish Government. The opportunity for freedom of expression, at first glance, appears to be somewhat stifled and negatively discouraged. This is in stark contrast to what currently exists in UK society.
Given that much of public influence is driven by mainstream media content in both Spanish and UK societies, perhaps consideration should be given to the affect that these influences have on the reasons for cultural differences, added to many hundreds of years of historic backgrounds of course.
It has been reported (Chris Pinchen, Citilab, 2009) that Citilab participants look towards Birmingham’s social media ‘scene’ and technology advances for inspiration. Birmingham is viewed as leading the way in this field by Citilab, with its close community, communication openness and sharing ethos.
However, Citilab also have this philosophy, but with the added benefits of physical support and adoption, integration and implementation from the local government.
It could be argued that this appears to be somewhat lacking, not only in Birmingham, but in the UK as a whole.
Perhaps consideration should be taken for observing and learning from Barcelona’s culture and standard operating procedures. By adopting the sharing of information and data principles, then reciprocal benefits could be mutually exchanged, both nationally and internationally, and the power of information transfer could perhaps demonstrate real, tangible and beneficial freedom for us all.