Creating Technology for Social Change

Civic Media Goes to London, Part One

Greetings from London! Matt, Dan, and I from the Center for Civic Media are in the UK this week for the Mozilla Festival on Media, Freedom, and the Web. Matt and I arrived in London on Wednesday to meet up with interesting people in the UK before the conference. Here’s a quick run-down on our trip thus far.

In Cambridge, we spoke with Matt Williams, social enterprise coordinator for the UK Youth Climate Coalition. Matt was the programme manager for PowerShift UK in 2008. We talked about organising climate campaigns as well as models of action around adaptive responses to the human impact of climate change.

At the Cambridge University Computer Lab, we met with Andreas Vlachos to talk about machne learning and natural language processing, and the approaches we might take to develop a nutritional label for the news, as well as The Weekly Different: a personalised political newsletter which offers opposing views to yours. We also spent a fascinating hour with Laura James, Head of Knowledge at True Knowledge, co-founder of Makespace Cambridge, and a participant in the Open Knowledge Foundation.

The evening concluded with evensong and a lovely dinner at my old Cambridge college, St. John’s. Our dinner partners were the current recipients of the Davies-Jackson Scholarship, a scheme which funded my education at Cambridge five years ago. The Davies-Jackson, funds Cambridge education for Americans who are among the first in their family to graduate from college. Dinner was lovely. The starter was a fascinating salad of Greek vegetables with an avocado smoothie. The main was a baked guinea fowl wrapped in sliced, smoked pancetta, with sauteed wild mushrooms. Desert was baked pear sponge tart with hot chocolate sauce. It was nice to dine in Hall again!

Wednesday evening, after meeting up with friends at the Cambridge Union Society, we took the train back to London to catch up with the super-generous and amazing Nicky Smyth, who is hosting us for the weekend in London. I always love talking with Nicky (Senior Research Manager, User Experience, BBC) about everything innovation, technology, design, and ideas. Nicky is incredibly knowledgeable, and has helped us find people and ideas which are relevant to our work at the Lab.

Thursday was similarly intense. We started out the day with Simon Rogers (twitter) and Lisa Evans (twitter) at the Guardian Data Store. Simon brought us along as observers at the Guardian’s Morning conference, a daily scrum where the editors review the previous day’s news and discuss what they’re going to put in the paper the following day. We also got to watch Mary Hamilton give the news team an introduction to Reddit, what kinds of stories tend to get covered in Reddit, and how much traffic Redditers drives to the Guardian. I know Mary from a great talk she gave on ZombieLARP at The Story this past February. After the Guardian’s morning conference, we talked with Simon and Lisa about their work on the Data site and what it means to be a news organisation with data as an important part of the newspaper’s brand. We also swapped lots of ideas, tools, and examples, discussing what a Data Journalism Toolkit might look like. I especially enjoyed talking with Simon and Lisa about responses to their article and post with Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Keuhn on NATO Kill-Capture missions drawn from a dataset of NATO from press releases.

The Guardian is an incredibly self-aware organisation which is trying to build open values into their building, office structure, culture, and processes. Ther daily open scrum favours good information flow within the organisation. The newsroom is open plan, and the Datablog team sits very close to the editorial desks. Matt and I are both deeply impressed at how much Simon and Lisa are able to achieve with a team of two, some good tools, and a network of willing designers, coders, and data people to draw on for specific projects.

After the Guardian, we had an inspirational conversation with Tom Steinberg of MySociety. As our conversation ranged across a lot of topics in media and civic technologies, Tom emphasised two main values. Firstly, he urged us to think about the long game when trying to achieve societal change with technology. Rather than stop at hack-day demos to influence government, he argued that the best projects succeed by becoming essential to key decision-makers in government. Sharing examples from his experience, Tom suggested a two or three year lifecycle and theory of change for civic technologies before a project can reach full maturity and become sustainable. Secondly, Tom believes strongly that the richest area for innovation in civic technologies is outside the news and media, where investment is already rather heavy. Instead, Tom argued that community-based initiatives which invite civic engagement are ripe for high-impact social change precisely because the private sector can’t find attractive enough business models to invest.

After our pub lunch with Tom, we rolled up our sleeves for the rest of the afternoon with Gaia Marcus and Jamie Young of The RSA‘s Connected Communities project. Gaia is trying to apply social network analysis to understanding the makeup of local communities and the effectiveness of social services. My colleage Matt worked with their designer Matt to work through ways to illustrate these networks to government, funders, and the communities themselves. I had a super productive paper prototyping session with Gaia on data entry tools for social scientists. Watch this space.

From there, we zipped over to The Hub King’s Cross to catch up with Carrie Bishop and the team at FutureGov to catch up on how and their other initiatives are coming along. Luring them with promises of interesting conversations, we then went over to The Lamb on Conduit Street for after-work drinks with lots of London friends who do technology and civic projects (thanks for helping me find it, Adrian!).

We had a super fantastic time with everyone at the pub (twitter list here). Throughout the evening, Mozilla-Knight news fellows were talking with predictive text developers hanging out with designers and hyperlocal news technologists chatting over a pint with funders, academics, and other makers. Many people gave frank and experienced ideas for the upcoming co-design and co-creation toolkit we’re assembling at the Center for Civic Media. I had some fascinating conversations about making culture and the idea of Badges for Lifelong Learning with people ranging from a Department of Education civil servant to people who are part of hackerspaces. Will Perrin and I had a great chat about work the Indigo Trust has been doing to fund technology initiatives in Africa. Overall, there were far too many great conversations with amazing people to record in this post, and I now have a notebook full of ideas, projects and links.

We spent Friday morning in Brixton Village over breakfast at Federation Coffee with a friend of mine, the information designer and artist Stefanie Posavec (website). Brixton Village is an amazing story of urban regeneration, and we enjoyed exploring it together. In addition to sharing projects which inspire us, we had a very practical conversation with Stefanie about business and career prospects for visual artists who work with data.

And that’s just the start!
As you can see, our trip to the UK has been off to a great start. Today at the Mozilla Festival, we showed off youth-focused technology at the Hive London Popup for Teens. Later in the evening during the science fair period, we gave demos, talked about the Center for Civic Media, and asked attendees to map out their media diet on tablet whiteboards. Matt and I will try to post more as the event unfolds. See you there!