Innovating Democracy

Apps for DemocracyLater this week, the winner of the final round of Washington DC’s “Apps for Democracy – Community Edition” will be unveiled. It’s another competition run by government to get developers working for social outcomes. But it’s also one that’s proved highly successful.

The first edition of Apps for Democracy yielded 47 web, iPhone and Facebook apps in 30 days, which authorities say delivered a $2,300,000 value to the city at a cost of $50,000.

Winners of that edition include the “Carpool Mashup Matchmaker” that uses mash-ups to improve uptake of carpooling within the city by making it easier to plan pick-ups and drop-offs that are close to you; and “DC Bikes – Your Guide to Biking in DC”, which, errr, does what it says in the title by drawing bike routes and facilities, bike theft data, bike maintenance and shops, again into a mash-up.

This time DC set out to capture citizens’ ideas about problems that could be solved through technology, through blog posts, email surveys, video testimonials, twitter and face to face.  Then “citizen-technologists” were set the challenge to build the perfect technology solution to meet those needs. Technology developers competed through 3 rounds of “code jam”, the results of which are what we’ll hear later this week.

The winning solutions may not have much relevance to the UK. But of course they might do. And in any case the competition approach, while tried here too, appears to be delivering very tangible savings for the city and its people.

Can communications save the world?

Can communications save the world

It’s probably the biggest challenge faced by mankind. And communications is the key. But somehow communications has yet to really step up to the plate to play its (critical) role in engaging people on climate change.

Last week I went to hear Lord (Chris) Smith, Chair of the Environment Agency, speak about the challenges we face in tackling climate change. He was eloquent, intelligent, coherent. But he talked about the progress and mistakes made by scientists, to a university audience that was familiar with the subtleties of data interpretation.

Lord Smith clearly believes that society will be persuaded by the weight of scientific evidence. I do not agree with him. Even six months ago 41% of Britons did not regard climate change as a serious issue. And then it got worse. One small part of the IPCC data (on Himalayan glaciers) was shown to be flawed. Skeptics seized on the poor data and the percentage convinced of the seriousness of climate change fell further.

Outside the lecture theatre, we in the communications community have failed to construct a shared belief in the reality and urgency of climate change. Many, perhaps most people, now regard climate change as a technical argument between scientists. People perceive the arguments polarized between ‘dogma’ and ‘denial’, between ‘the hair-shirted fringe’ and ‘the selfish rich’. Intelligent commentators describe their position as ‘agnostic’ to distance themselves from what they perceive to be religious fervor around the debate. And the man in the street feels the arguments are distant and irrelevant, impact upon us too far in the future, and decides to do nothing.

Communicators now need to engage the whole of our society far more passionately and effectively on this issue. We need to help people understand how tackling climate change could benefit our lives. We need to build public engagement across the political spectrum. We need to appeal to the collective imagination to understand how our actions determine our future.  And to do so we need to draw on all our expertise as communicators, rather than relying on the ponderous language of science alone to save the world.

Playing safe

Last week a British online game, Smokescreen, won the best game award at the hugely prestigious South By Southwest conference in the US. As well as a coup for producers Six to Start and commissioner Channel 4 Education, it’s also focused attention on how to engage teens about safety online.

At its heart, Smokescreen simulates the internet. In the game, players use ‘Fakebook’, ‘Gaggle’, ‘Tweetr’, ‘MSG messenger’ and other sites to help friends who’ve set up Whitesmoke – an exclusive teen-only social networking site. Players also receive simulated phone calls and text messages from in-game characters.

The producers set out to convince players that the fictional world they were in could actually be real – and so can the risks and threats it contains. What’s brilliant about the game is that it puts online safety into a credible context, even parodying social networks as it goes.

As a parent and a school governor myself, I’m concerned that we find ways to educate children about the risks of the internet without scaring them off what is the greatest educational resource available today.

Because teens are hard-wired to believe in their own invincibility, standard efforts to explain potential dangers can either fail to convince or sound like the draconian measures of an adult ordering them around in what they perceive to be their space.

But still teenagers don’t think twice about putting e-mails, phone numbers and photos onto Facebook and other social networking sites.

The conviction of a serial sex offender for the rape and murder of teenager Ashleigh Hall, ensnared by him through a fake profile on Facebook, dominated the news a month ago. The need for effective engagement of teens about the dangers of social networking has never been more apparent.

Smokescreen offers one highly effective tool to persuade and engage teens, rather than adults telling them what to do. Now we need more such approaches to fulfill the potential of Web 2.0 as an education and networking platform for good.

Developing World-wide web

Haiti earthquake social mapping

Africa’s problems always seemed too great for the worldwide web to solve.  Even with Web 2.0, innovation seemed to flow strictly in one direction – philanthropically from developed to developing world.

Now a social media mash-up developed in rural Kenya has reversed that. Ushahidi (which means testimony in Swahili) is being used to map crises and direct relief efforts as far apart (in human tragedy terms) as Haiti and Washington DC.

The simple service mashes up user-generated reports from people hit by a crisis and Google Maps. Victims provide on-the-ground data, then a self-organising army of volunteers around the world translates text messages, tweets and other alerts so that aid workers on the ground have access to precisely mapped information of where people are in the greatest need.

Ushahidi was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election riots at the beginning of 2008. Because few Kenyans have access to computers, it was built to work on SMS and the mobile web. Because there was no financial backing, it was developed in open-source. And those are its strengths now it’s being used across the world.

In the last month, Ushahidi has proved a hero directing aid efforts following the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes. And last month it came to the rescue in Washington DC to direct snowploughs to road blockages in the snowstorms that closed much of the city.

In doing so, Ushahidi creates a legacy of citizen-reporting to capture the real stories that lie behind tragedy. And Africa is teaching the rest of the world a thing or two about the importance of social media.

B2B (that’s back to blogging)

Inspired by an immersion course last week (thanks Hyper Island), I’m coming back to blogging in my own name. I last blogged as plain me more than a year ago. Since then, I’ve been blogging under my company, Digital Public, and even under our parent company, Engine. But I fancy the freedom of just being out there with my own random thoughts again.

Over the next few days, I’ll be posting articles in homage to some of the people I know well who’ve inspired me online, because they deserve to be recognised. And catching up with a few postings that might trigger some reaction or simply amuse.

And just so it’s out there, from now on the thoughts expressed in this blog may not reflect the views of any company I work with. Contents may settle in transit. The value of your home may go down if you read this blog. This product may contain nut traces. You have been warned. Enjoy. And please feel free to comment.

Neil Morris, London, March 21st 2010