Sunday 25 February 2007

Three views of e-democracy

Sunday night here. Muggy, humid Auckland. What's new? Well we are hardier, and perhaps a little more chastened, having had a bit of a shake up, earthquake wise, something the rest of the country seemed to find either amusing, or our own fault. If you excuse the pun.

They Work For You
My week was also a busy one. It started last Monday with my having a go at explaining They Work For You to Kay Gregory on TVNZ Breakfast. You can see/hear it here.

As I've said before, the great thing about this spot,is that you get 5 minutes [sometimes less] to say something useful, usually about a topic that, by itself, doesn't really lend itself to brevity.

In this case, explaining the New Zealand version of the UK open source classic web 2.0 experiment on how to mash up lots of pieces of parliamentary information, and then reassemble them as a way of monitoring, or critiquing, or even cheering on parliamentary MPs' in their daily business in the parliament.

Its a great site - and as I say on the tele, strangely compelling - you do get a real sense of the purpose of Parliament in general, and what different MP's are up to, including yours. And if you don't know who that is, that's the first thing they sort out.

I also love the fact its a citizen based initiative. It's modelled on the UK original, which began as a My Society project.

The New Zealand version is built, maintained and managed by Robert McKinnon, an expat kiwi who used to write financial software for his day job, but who is now freelance in the citizen democracy open source field. He is London based, but not, as far as I know, from Tooting.

The open source connection is important here. The UK guys made their API available for their site late last year, with the New Zealand version a stunning example of the kinds of energy this releases.

Robert has been in touch since the Breakfast TV spot to say, over time, he intends to add some social software features to the website.

He wants to reproduce some of the concepts he sees operating in He'd like users to be able to browse events, say which events they are watching or attending, and see what their friend's are watching or attending.

For theyworkforyou in New Zealand, he sees users tagging whether they are watching a bill, blogging about a bill or submitting on a bill. Then, he hopes, "In aggregate, we could see how many people are monitoring each bill, or each ministerial portfolio, or each MP".

He is currently trying to finish the bill listing updates and some voting analysis.
I think he is a total star, and I wish him well!

[Note: All the data on the site right now is available from various government sources. One of them is the new site for the New Zealand Parliament. To be fair to everyone who worked on that site, a monster effort of collaboration, I should point out that it too, albeit from the standpoint of the "official record", is on the side of the e-democracy angels, at here.]

Currently they are experimenting with a tool which gives the public the ability to make a submission online to two select committees,The Commerce Committee and the Justice and Electoral Committee.

The former is currently taking submissions on the Copyright Bill. And yes, this is the one which is trying to sort out the thorny issue of format shifting.So you might want to have a go.

Internet NZ
Also, out on the stumps weeks was the Internet Society of New Zealand, with Board members, et al, on a bit of a nationwide road show.

On Tuesday last, they rolled into Auckland, and fronted up to an open meeting to discuss their current lobbying priorities, the next two years strategic plan, and, while they were at it, gave a very candid account of their budgets, and upcoming spending plans.

Being the manager, or guardian of the .nz domain space allows them , so I understand, to pick up a wholesale levy on all NZ domain names. Accordingly, they have robust cash flow, and a definite sense of purpose on how spent it.

As those who have followed their activities in the last 12 months, will know, a lot of this is lobbying government on the telecommunications regime, especially around unbundling the local loop, et al. They have also taken strong positions on the current Copyright Bill.

On that score, by happy serendipity, they too have been urging people to use the online select committee submission tool to the Commerce Committee, mentioned above.

As well as the lobbying work strand, the are also working on their basic remit of maintaining the local domain space, including ensuring the technical architecture of the Internet remains robust.

Those two work strands sounds like "mothersmilk" statements.

However, the meeting did provoke an interesting discussion, some of which was aided and abetted by yours truly - and that was around, while congratulating Internet NZ for their sauces in getting into the ears of government and the regulators, perhaps it was time they spent some of their considerable energies [and budgets] getting the public onside with the issues of peering, network neutrality, next generation internet, telecommuncation investment portfolios etc.

In short, not only was their vision statement , We work to keep the Internet open and uncaptureable , the ships biscuit, some of the issues facing the local internet infrastructure were so important, wasn't it now time for Internet NZ to make sure the 3 million people in NZ who use its pathways, started realising that like all public goods, the internet infrastructure needs lots of vigilance from everyone to make sure it stays that way.

Having forced these poor guys to listen to me, I felt it was only right I bowl up to their site and pay the $20 membership fee. I suggest you do the same.

Widening the view 2007
Lastly, just in - a brilliant combined e-mail/text message , web site call to arms, and invite, from the redoubtable Mairi Gunn, Blackbox Productions, Vice Pres Women in Film and TV.

She, and many of her colleagues in the local NZ documentary industry, are on a mission - to put together a series of meetings/hui on creating a sustainable local documentary infrastructure, which isn't wholly under the control of the local television networks.

To get there, in March 2007 , they , WIFT New Zealand , in partnership with the Screen Innovation Production Fund (SIPF), will hold a series of one day hui entitled Widening the View 2007: Creating a Sustainable Future for Documentary.

Monday March 5 in Auckland - Auckland University of Technology

Tuesday March 6 in Dunedin - Burns Hall

Wednesday March 7 in Wellington - St. John's Church Hall, corner of Dixon and Willis Streets

There is a great web site, here.

Tuesday 20 February 2007

Web 2.0 for people

This is a brilliant piece of video - it totally does it for me. If you do nothing else today, then click it - play it - forward it - talk about it. You can play it here - or if you prefer, see it in a bigger window, and meet the author, here. Thanks for sending it to me Mr Morton! Nice new site by the way. Must tell people about it!

Thursday 15 February 2007

Wanted - good home for old library cabinet

Just read a lovely series of nostalgia posts from the ever excellent New Zealand library Listserv.
Memory Moment 1
You remember them, everyone? ListServs? Of how, way back in the mists of time, or at least 12/20 years ago, listservs were the most useful part of our digital life - ask a question of your gang at breakfast - have the answer by lunchtime - the facts and figures in your presentation ten minutes later. And some of us even acknowledged the source.

The librarians of both New Zealand [thanks Knowledge Basket] and the world have some excellent Listservs, including NZlibs. Right now one of their members from National Radio is looking for a good home for one of their old library catalogue cabinets.

Memory Moment 2
You remember them as well? The picture above is from the old cabinets at Yale University. Once the brain of any institution, the card index was the definitive metadata store, and the Dewey and Library of Congress systems the way knowledge was indexed and catalogued.

These days, its all digital - catalogues are now library management systems [LMS], with a myriad of different modules, all looking to capture both the analogue and the digital and bring them into the orbit of their members through a parallel customer or patron record which knows what you have out - what you have on order, et al.

When you put these two worlds together, and then add in some customer profile information about, say, my interests, and then hove into a view a really kicker web site, then, you start seeing that the modern public library has a huge potential to not only survive the transition to the web/digital world - it can become one of the key resources people use to manage and navigate and live their digital life.

There are some really good examples of this kind of thinking already happening here in New Zealand.

First, have a look at Christchurch City Libraries web site. For sure, there is an interest here. McGovern had a hand in working out the information architecture, design, and navigation.

But the build - the back end - the ongoing content - the databases - including the LMS plumbing is managed and in many cases developed by the digital library services team.

In other words these guys got digital before you did.

Up in Auckland , eLGAR, the consortium of five separate library authorities, scoped, commisioned and brought to launch a shared LMS. This project has won a bunch of awards including the 2006 Computerworld Excellence Award Excellence in the Use of IT in Government. [Note; The 2007 Awards are still open for applicants until Friday 16th march , here]

Public libraries going digital
But the wider picture of how public libraries will transition to the digital age is more vexed and complicated issue.

Off the seventy odd New Zealand library authorities, it would be fair to say the majority of them struggle to resource their analogue world, far less the bright new coin of planet digital.

Moreover, public librarians as a profession, although they embrace the idea of a digital future, are perfectly well aware that there is a lot to do to convince their political masters, and in some instances, their own peers, of their relevance in the age of Google.

Some of this is all about making people aware of what is already happening.

For example, Any Questions, the librarian based reference site for New Zealand students doing homework is a great initiative, and a good example of the kind of co-operation that will win the argument - in this case, librarians from various library authorities work within a web framework which was built and managed through the National Library, which in turn had, and continues to have, loads of support, both professional and financial from the NZ Ministry of Education.

Similarly, Matapihi, the heritage portal which gives us access to 80,000 pictures, objects, sounds, movies and texts on New Zealand arts and heritage, is another great example of how local partners, while retaining complete control of their own material, connect to a national framework which gives us a federated view of all the different partner collections.

But no matter how good these examples are, there is a crying need for a lot more strategic thinking on how the local public library network/profession can remain true to its strength as a local community asset, work nationally with its peers and partners, and interlink globally with the rest of the digital landscape of knowledge, information and imagination.

Well Worth Your Attention

Some excellent thinking has started. Lots of this is in the well worth your attention paper -
Public Libraries of New Zealand - A Strategic Framework 2006 - 2016

The emphasise is on the vital role that public libraries play in community life, and looks at the challenges that public libraries face in meeting the demands of the future

It is also refreshingly clear about the value of the local library.

"Public libraries are invaluable to our democratic way of life – they contribute to our economic, social and cultural life – both locally and nationally - engage, inspire and inform citizens and help build strong communities'.

They have identified four areas of strategic development which they want libraries to build on.

  • Accessing information, ideas and works of the imagination

  • Supporting independent lifelong learning and literacy

  • Enabling online access to the digital world

  • Building community participation and development

This strategy, and how to implement it should take a big leap forward this coming Monday 26th and Tuesday 27th of February in Wellington, when around 100 people from the sector, local and national government, plus a whole bunch of innovation/business people are being asked to come together and come up with their ideas on how to sustain, change, innovate and or champion the future of the library space.

They will also have the chance to hear from David Lammy , the UK Minister for Culture who has been invited out to talk to the conference on the UK experience on transforming the library sector through initiatives like the Love Libraries campaign and the Reading Agency.

These initiatives have in turn been incubated and/or created by the UK agency MLA. Chris Batt the head of MLA is also coming out to talk to the conference.

It's a big gig. I am delighted to have been asked to go to it. My own personal hope is a three part work programme/outcome:

1. Cultural
A programme of events and activities leading to a very loud public conversation to examine, critique, and hopefully, reaffirm the role and purpose of the public library for the likes of you and me - the customer, formally known as the member.

2. Political
An ongoing commitment by both local and central government to find new ways of collaborating around the importance of the public library as a national community asset, including new funding and partnership models.

3. Professional
A big conversation in the library world and their customers to make sure the library profession has the skills , attributes , values and frameworks to be a major resource for you and me on the emerging and every growing digital landscape.

Two invitations

Lastly - I have two invitations. The first from me - make a comment on how you see the future for the public library.

Second - from Penny Carnaby, National Librarian and Chief Executive of the National Library who writes, to extend an invitation to attend a public meeting on Tuesday, 27 February at 5.30pm, for "A Conversation with David Lammy, Minister for Culture for the UK'
5.30pm, Tuesday 27 February 2007 National Library Auditorium Aitken St Wellington
Please RSVP

Sunday 4 February 2007

kiwi foo

Last weekend was your typical beautiful kiwi Sunday in Warkworth, just north of Auckland.
I was there for Kiwi Foo, at the invitation of Russell Brown and Nat Torkington.

Based on the Foo Camp [friends of O'Reilly] model from the USA, it brings together a bunch of like minded people who are working in, or on, the Internet/digital revolution. And for sure, if people had a special interest in the collaboration space , aka web 2.0, then why not.

For kiwi foo , 120 people assembled in the big staff room of Maharangi College to 'make their own agenda'.

This is a literal invitation.

Each participant gets three words to describe themselves [I choose content, collaboration and curiosity] - then get to it.

Getting to it means descending on a bunch of big paper notice boards - one for each of five rooms - and then filling in the slots for Friday night , Saturday, Sunday.

Example, your passion is the deep down workings of an open source technique, then take slot 10am on Saturday in Room A7, and write in your topic, or question. Whether anyone turns up for this session depends on whether anyone is interested in the topic, or you.

And it works - thirty minutes later we had a programme which ranged across three main areas - software - projects - policy frameworks. I can't and don't intend covering them all. Rather, I'd like to touch on the highlights for me.

First, software; lots of open source conversations, some of which didn't so much pass me by, as occur in a different time/space continuum.

One Laptop Per Child
That said , I did give myself visiting rights to one discussion around the One Laptop per Child Project run by Chris DiBona, Google's open source program manager.

Formally known the $100 laptop, and also The Children's Machine, the OLPC project is still very much a live project with the aim to provide millions of children with a free network ready robust laptop running open source software which gives them access to all sorts of educational material. Or as the wiki entry has it -

The Children's Machine, also known as XO-1 and previously as the $100 Laptop, is a proposed inexpensive laptop computer intended to be distributed to children around the world, especially to those in developing countries, to provide them with access to knowledge and modern forms of education. The laptop is being developed by the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) trade association. OLPC is a U.S. based, non-profit organization created by faculty members of the MIT Media Lab to design, manufacture, and distribute the laptops.
The rugged and low-power computers will contain
flash memory instead of a hard drive and will use Linux as their operating system.[1] Mobile ad-hoc networking will be used to allow many machines Internet access from one connection.
The laptops will be sold to governments and issued to children by schools on a basis of one laptop per child. Pricing is currently expected to start at around US$135-140 and the goal is to reach the US$100 mark in 2008. One thousand working prototypes were delivered in late 2006 and full-scale production is expected to start in mid-2007.

I was at the launch of the project at WSIS in Tunis when Nicholas Negroponte, Kofi Annan waved about a bright green prototype which didn't have inner workings whatsoever - in other words - a kids toy which had the assembled press in a frenzy.

In Warkworth , to my total delight, I got to touch and play with one of the 875 working prototypes, hear about progress to date, including a preview of the Sugar interface.

Sugar is a very cute interface - for sure it is child friendly - but it's more than that - it feels like a bit of a breakthrough - especially the journal feature which helps the child keep track of what they are doing, and who they have been working with.

That said, OLPC has critics - and I'd be happy to hear of any views.

The Xero Project
The other project with a big software element to it was Xero. It got a lot of mind share, as of course, did its founder, Rod Drury.

Rod is a bit of a legend in the local software world - a venture capitalist who likes talking code, has built both product and companies, and values interactive design - in short a walking example of the old web 1.0 triage - the suit, the hippy, and the geek.

You could also describe him as the master grad of the old Wired headline - have fun - write code - make money.

Xero, his latest project is aimed at the SME market. It's a SaaS [ software as a service] pitch for the cash book - in short an online accountancy model which is built around extensive user testing and analysis of the needs of a small business who, in Rod's words 'are always chasing the next cheque'.

So the first thing it does in the morning is tell the SME what money has come in overnight.

It also takes care of the usual accountancy stuff - GST returns - tax - plus of course the ever important profit and loss ledger. Or, everything you can do with the likes of Quicken - but this time online - and this time stripped down and rebuilt for the user.

If I sound a bit of a convert, its true - during the demo, I'm going , we do that - we struggle with that - strewth, that would be neat [e.g. printable version of the GST return assembled inside the application].

I also just loved the way the design , and the user flow, picked up queries and then gave the answer as a double act between first class interactive design and lots of cute AJAX programming.

But also of note was the interactive elevator pitch - including Xero's plans to first take care of the New Zealand market, and then go to the the UK, the USA, Australia et al. So, a truly global ambition based on a product which was designed around a small kiwi business. How cute is that? And I bet they do it. And believe me, that kind of passion is catching.

The Policy framework
But then you come to the most startling part of the whole weekend - of how these 120 participants - all of whom know much more than I do, especially around developing and marketing innovation, taking risks, building companies and solutions that scale, felt it of equal, if not more, importance, that we in NZ continue to focus on the policy and regulation layer of New Zealand's digital environment.

This 'policy track' for want of a better term, started on the Friday evening, when almost all participants crowded into a session with David Cunliffe, the Minster of Communication.

This began, inevitably, with a re-frame of the past 9 months, especially around the unbundling of the local loop - and yep - for sure,the participants saw that as definitely worth a round of applause - strike one - sorted , and a good thing too - so thank you Mr Minister.

But wait - there is more Mr Minister
However, just in case he, and his colleaque, Judith Tizard [at that session and at others through the weekend] thought this was going to be a breeze, they then went on to write the agenda for the next part of the New Zealand telecommunications framework.

Mercifully, David Cunliffe had the good sense to do some serious listening - I mean why would you pass up the chance to listen to people like Andy Linton, et al - all of whom have chapters in the early history of the New Zealand Internet .

So what needs done. First up, to quote Captain Cuttle, find, and when found mark, the phrase 'network peering' and start swotting it up, because it is , 'your next big thing' - i.e. figure out a way in which all the main players on the Internet backbone ensure that all local traffic stays local, and that international bandwidth is used to haul international traffic into the country, and take New Zealand traffic out to the world.

Sounds simple? Believe me, when you listen to these guys, you realise it is anything but - that because the likes of Telecom or Telstra wont peer, that vast amounts of local traffic, e,g, a request for a TradeMe page, ends up going half way round the world before it comes back onto my screen, and that as a consequence most content providers in New Zealand, including National Radio, are forced to host their servers offshore to best manage the accruing inefficiencies of not peering.

I don't pretend to understand the complexity of peering - but, believe me, like David Cunliffe, I intend making it my mission to change that. You can start right now, by making a comment and explaining how it works, and what needs to happen.

Build a new network
However, it didn't end there. Beginning on the Friday night, and then continuing in and around a number of other sessions [all user generated!] there emerged the startling, but wholly serious proposal - to make sure we have adequate digital trade routes, the New Zealand government needs to help New Zealand companies bypass the catastrophic inefficiencies of the current private sector backbone, by building and owning an alternative backbone in exactly the same way as they own the roads.

I need to say this again - a room full of people who normally would run from the first hint of big government, are urging the New Zealand government to build a brand new backbone for the New Zealand Internet at a cost plus 10% - that given the ludicrous inefficiencies of the current situation it will attract floods of customers and so pay for itself - and that this is the single biggest issue for any New Zealand government to get their head round, bar none!

And who is saying this - not the left - or the social democratic ex hippies like me - but hard nosed Internet entrepreneurs building new Zealand's next trade layer?

Forget right and left politics - for them , and this is their words, not mine , 'the market isn't working' - we need an independent backbone - and we need it now! Because without it, New Zealand is going nowhere!

Believe me - these guys are very very convincing!

Thursday 1 February 2007

John Key on You Tube

Had a call from Radio New Zealand last night asking me if I had seen the NZ Herald story on John Key posting to YouTube, "did I think it was a good idea", and would I like to talk about it on air on Morning Report , this morning. I said okay.

So last night, fresh from three days in Wellington, I'm back online to YouTube looking at a relaxed John Key, the leader of the National Party, [currently the main opposition party in NZ] , sitting in his garden last Sunday, musing on his upcoming policy speech which he was due to make in Christchurch, the next day.

In this speech he talks of the growing underclass of New Zealand and the need for new policies to lift certain communities out of the no hope of despair. Naturally, Helen Clark, the NZ Prime Minister has very strong opinions on this speech.

But what of the YouTube connection, and National Radio?

Well I turned up as requested and spoke to the ever young Geoff Robinson , in that wonderful, I can't believe I'm asking this voice of his, which he saves for what Radio New Zealand call 'technology stories'.

He asked what I thought.

I replied that it was an interesting development, and for sure, it was totally right that politicians should be climbing aboard the social networking ecology of YouTube, My Space, et al. , especially if they were trying to start a conversation with the digital generation, both young/ old, male/female

The web 2.0 ecology
Geoff, as he occasionally does with technology stories, was a little bemused as to why anyone would bother to go there to watch this stuff?

In response, I tried to turn this around to emphasise that YouTube was not just a place people went to watch, or post, stuff: but that more and more, it is also a distribution mechanism which gets video into personal blogs, news and video and rss aggregators - [e.g.] .

In short YouTube was part of an ecology which had a new set of drivers, and, by definition, new rules and behaviours, which in turn were the foundations of web.2.0

I then begged the question, does National, and John Key, understand the ecology they are joining?

That the video could end up as part of someone else's mash-up, or it might stream onto all sorts of other sites and web locations of which National might not have the slightest knowledge off?
Is National up for this? Who knows?

National Party Digital Strategy?
But of equal, if not more interest, at least to me, is whether John Key and the National Party have a "digital strategy" or, at minimum, a policy development group somewhere, working out something like that?

By digital strategy, I'm meaning, how much thinking have they done on how the digital pathways and new networks will affect every other policy area they are trying to get a handle on.

For example, in education, do they have policies which will offer world class digital learning pathways and opportunities for all of our children, including the kids stuck in the so called underclass?

And before anyone drops on me to tell me that online and distance learning doesn't work, you might want to take a wander around some of Auckland's most exclusive private schools, where a parent provided laptop is obligatory, wireless networks abound, with some, Kings College, selling their own online teaching materials offshore at a handsome profit.

On "life long learning" - does National have a policy framework which will continue to support projects in the likes of the People's Network, or plans to either support, or replace the current governments $20million Community Partnership Fund.

Over on the connection side of the current government's "digital strategy", is it National's intention to continue to push for more open access to Telecom's networks - push for more progress on the introduction of ADSL2 - give support from municipal networks like the "Broadband Challenge", as well as help schools, libraries and other community assets take advantage of the advanced high speed networks like Karen.

Much of the above projects are part of the current government's , digital strategy.

None of this is unique to this government or this country. Almost all countries, certainly in the OECD, are spending money on digital projects, programmes and perspectives.

However, the question, for today, is whether John Key and his new look National Party are on the case?

Is John Key's appearance on YouTube somebodies not so bright one off idea, or is it a signal that they want to play in the ecology of the web?

The National Party is currently at a three day policy retreat in Gisborne. Are they working on these issues?

Or, as I write, is Maurice Williamson, the only National party politician I have met who "gets digital", wandering the corridors hunting out his suddenly elusive peers to try and engage them with this digital stuff?