Open Government

There is a mismatch between the centralised vote once every x years mode of government and the current social network world.

How can governments open up, not just to share data but to involve citizens in key government processes?

Turns out some governments already are; several places have participatory budgeting, Rajastan uses a low-tech approach to keep government-spending honest, Russia and Lithuania are using Wikis to develop legislation. It’s a fascinating look at what governments can do to be more open in a social media era.

If government could really create an open route for discussing and creating policy it could be eye-opening; for all of us. I hope the people behind Digital Europe see this.

Sound Design

How well can you concentrate at work? in the classroom? In this speech Julian Treasure demonstrates how noise can make it harder for us to concentrate, and makes a plea for architects to consider sound in their designs.

It’s one of my regular complaints about modern design, my mother is deaf and wears a hearing aid most days. In most modern cafes she cannot hear what is going on due to the reverberation of sound from the ubiquitous hard surfaces and the music. I recently moved desks in my office just to get a slightly quieter work environment, and I live in an old house – I can hear way too much of my upstairs neighbour’s activities (especially when the football is on). Sometimes I put on some soothing classical music so that I can listen to that instead.

The design fashion for hard surfaces and open plan spaces can make it harder to concentrate, and that’s a loss of productivity in a work environment.

Life Hacks for the Developing World

Vinay Venkatraman talks about “technology crafts” essentially describing a couple of ways to use technology to deliver public service solutions at low cost – built from common components with local ingenuity.

The resulting tools are all about providing single function to solve a single problem, it’s a far cry from the bells and whistles of most projects I work on. The simplicity is part of its charm and, I suspect, its success.

Fact and Fiction Online

Ever wondered how journalists make sense of the deluge of information posted online in a news event?

We used to talk about the information superhighway, that metaphor became outdated as the volume of information grew. The volume of information uploaded now is overwhelming, as quoted in the film it’s more than an hour of video on YouTube, and 58 photos on Instagram – per second. (This was recorded in November 2012, the Instagram figure may have declined).

There’s also a huge growth in what people can do with images and film, so how does a journalist find the best image for a story AND confirm that the image is real. Turns out the best way to validate the image is to find the source, and validate whether the source is trustworthy.

The Nolan explores three degrees of difficulty in assessing this;

  1. the source has an online persona and a reputation online that you can trust, the example given was around photos from Superstorm Sandy. When the source was confirmed as to known Manhattan food bloggers the image was accepted.
  2. look at whether other people online find this person credible, this can work across language barriers to identify a source that might be worth interviewing. In the case of the Egyptian revolution this type of analysis was done on twitter data, looking for ‘nodes’ who were retweeted. Then looking at those nodes as possible credible sources.
  3. if the source cannot be verified can other details of the image or video be confirmed to corroborate the story. He takes apart the details of a rather gruesome video to assess its validity. And cross-references what he finds to assess the credibility of 3 sources.

Most of the tools used are free, online, and available to everyone. Which creeped me out about three seconds before he said “Given a couple of clues, I could probably find out a lot of things about most of you in the audience that you might not like me finding out.

I like the cyber-detective aspect of his work, not sure I want to see some of the video/image content that comes across his desk.

Fame Wars

I’ve been playing with Google Ngrams. If you’ve never heard of them, here’s an introduction to the concept.

Google have scanned about 50 million books, and a couple of scientists at Harvard figured out some ways to analyse that mountain of data – and Google have developed the ngrams tool based on this analysis.

I was trying to use it to compare fame, so testing pairs or groups of famous people from roughly the same era to see who was more famous. Stephen Hawking beats Stephen Fry, Galileo beats Copernicus most of the time, and Edison beats Tesla (to the consternation of true geeks). Moving into fiction, Captain Kirk beats Hans Solo; but Darth Vader beats both – apparently in the fame stakes it pays to be evil.

But one result amused me more than all the others; Michaelangelo vs Da Vinci. There’s a huge upkick in results for Da Vinci, in the early 2000s, right when Dan Brown published the Da Vinci code.

Da Vinci beats Michaelangelo

Remember that ngrams is referencing mentions of a term in the 50 million books scanned so far – so this huge jump in the number of times the term is used cannot be due to one book alone. Ngrams also lets you drill down and see what was published in that period with the term “Da Vinci”, and indeed a whole range of books on the subject of Da Vinci was published. Everything from biographies, to school books, to books analysing all the errors in Dan Brown’s book.

You need to use the drill down function when playing around with ngrams, I tested “meme” vs “gene”. Gene won, which was no surprise, but I found data for the word meme being used back into the 1800s which was a surprise. But on drilling down it turns out that it’s the French word “meme” that is being counted.

Copyright Math

There’s lots of debate on the state of copyright. I happen to think that the current situation is not good for creative people and does not protect their originality. We get sucked into the “free content” concept, but while content distribution is free, it’s not free to create and promote. We’ve yet to figure out a way that rewards creation of content and supports free distribution – SOPA wasn’t even close. There are vested interests on both sides of the argument, so I really appreciated this light-hearted take on the numbers being used in the case to protect copyright.

 

Four-oh-four

It’s the page you get when there is no page. For the user it’s the frustrating error message when you’ve typed in the wrong URL, or clicked on a link to a page that has been removed from a site. For the website, or company providing the website it’s an opportunity.

Renny Gleeson has a funny take on the whole thing at TED.

I think “breaking a relationship” is a bit too far, but I agree that 404 pages are an opportunity.  Many companies have taken the opportunity to provide help to their customers and manage to have some fun with their 404 pages including;

  • Coca cola; offers some choices to help you, uses simple English, and manages to include the word “refreshing” which links to their brand.
  • Siemens; apologises, offers some help, and includes a fuzzy graphic as if you’ve gone to non-existing tv channel – points slightly to their brand as a technology player.
  • Suredev; admonishes visitors as if they’ve broken something, it’s an approach that not all companies could get away with, they also provide some links and a search bar.

I was really disappointed with the SouthWest Airlines 404 page, they manage to do so much that it cool it’s a shame they haven’t paid a little attention to their error page.

A good error page should

  • help the visitor get back on track, by giving them links or a search box.
  • provide a way to contact the webmaster
  • use plain language – avoid tech speak (so the technical message “404 file not found” shouldn’t be there)
  • connect to your brand – by design, by tone of voice, by the use of humour (where appropriate)

It’s inevitable that customers will occasionally land on the 404 page, the least website managers can do is make it helpful and clear, add a connection to your brand you’ve got a more positive experience for those customers who got a little lost on your site.