Monthly Archives: August 2009

How it makes of your face a stone…

I have had Carol Ann Duffy’s first poem as laureate – Politics – stuck up on my fridge since it was published in June. Tucked somewhere within it is the reason I decided I’d had enough of lobbying in Westminster and Brussels and handed in my notice at the Open Rights Group.

Today, Lord Mandelson has occasioned a re-reading of this excellent verse. His Department for Business has released a statement detailing an “evolution in their thinking” on the issue of how to tackle illicit sharing of copyrighted files across peer to peer networks. The aspect of this evolution that has caught the attention of the popular press is that disconnecting internet connections (the “three-strikes and you’re out” model recently ruled unconstitutional in France) is now back on the table. Given this, I’m not sure the word “evolution” or even, for that matter, “thinking” applies.

Shall we pretend this matters? Shall we again list the reasons why excluding – punitively, yet without due process – British citizens from the most transformative communications medium of the last several hundred years is a poor policy response to the failure of an over-consolidated and outmoded industry to adapt their business practices to consumer demand?

Mandelson is not the first Minister at BIS/BERR/DTI to believe, no doubt after a few visits from some sexy people in the record / movie industries, that the illicit filesharing issue needs nothing more than his personal political touch for it all to be solved. Not politics, then, so much as vanity. On the bright side, as the complexities of this issue reveal themselves once more, and Mandy’s self-belief fades as quickly as his suntan, at least the resulting public failure to deliver on this “evolution” might prove humiliating enough to permanently mark the “three strikes” model with Whitehall’s “Here Be Dragons” stamp, ensuring that even the most cloth-eared Tory successor would be unlikely to go near it come next year. Although of course, to ensure this happens, we should all continue supporting the work of my less jaded and remarkably patient former colleagues at the Open Rights Group.

In the meantime, the civil servants at BIS tasked with delivering actual workable policies on this issue must be sighing heavily and mentally postponing their retirement again today.

Birthday present

It was my birthday on Saturday. Of all the beautiful, thoughtful gifts I received, I thought this one was definitely worth a blog post:

I love the “hoodie” picture that is used to illustrate this product.

Although I’m pretty confident this was bought for me in jest, it seems that a roaring trade is done in professional-looking CCTV cameras online. This site, for example, boasts:

“For a fraction of the price of real security cameras, you could implement an effective deterrant to criminals and when our replica cameras are used in conjunction with the CCTV Camera Warning Signs listed below, the effectiveness of the whole system is increased for your benefit and peace of mind.”

Very little comprehensive study has been invested in the effectiveness of CCTV cameras real or fake, but it’s understood that CCTV only has a minimal impact on crime and disorder. This 2002 review of the evidence from NACRO [.pdf] gives some idea of where we’re at in terms of understanding if constant surveillance is a price worth paying…

Tom Watson on illicit filesharing

In last weekend’s Independent on Sunday:

Instead of consulting on the best way to criminalise seven million UK citizens, wouldn’t it be better if we spent time asking these questions? We might have more chance of coming up with interventions that will nurture 21st-century creative talent, and not just restore 20th-century incumbents to their position of power.

You can read an extended version of the article (with accompanying comment love-in) on Tom’s blog.

Tory health plans – some thoughts

The hoo-ha surrounding this week’s announcement of Tory plans for the NHS IT project begins to look rather misplaced once you actually read their report. The media’s over-emphasis on the role Google or Microsoft might play in future provision of the electronic patient record shows that we persist in understanding state service provision using the defunct paradigm of public versus private. It is only if we adopt a new paradigm – that of centralised versus decentralised information management and service organisation – that we will be equipped to critique the Tories’ plans in any detail.

The nearly 200-page report that spurred the headlines was commissioned by shadow health secretary Stephen O’Brien, and overseen by the former British Computer Society Health Informatics forum chair, Dr Glyn Hayes. Its references to the participation of Google, Microsoft and other commercial information service providers take place in a short, two page section. The mention is designed to illustrate the potential of a much larger reform – that of decentralising the provision of the electronic patient record and other information services – to lead to the twin goods of cost reduction and patient-centred care. It does not wed the British citizenry to relinquishing its medical secrets to Silicon Valley. Quite the opposite – it has the potential to give power over sensitive medical data back to the people who have traditionally been that data’s custodians – practitioners and patients.

The report calls for a balance between centralised standard setting and grassroots commissioning of IT services. If it works well, this approach would result in technology, commissioned by the people who are actually going to use it, that nonetheless allows systems across the NHS to communicate with one another. This at once avoids the disruption caused by the current one-size-fits-all policy of the NHS PfIT, where the needs of frontline practitioners collide with new systems they didn’t ask for and had no say in building, while also preventing the information silos of early digitisation projects within the NHS.

Rather than work with two or three suppliers to design the system top to bottom, healthcare practitioners and policymakers could, the report imagines, come together with information architecture experts to agree on a set of open standards that would make decentralised systems sufficiently interoperable, then let whatever appropriate mix of commercial, state-sponsored and civil society groups design the systems practitioners needed to manage information in their particular clinical setting. A high profile example of the successful application of this methodology already exists. It’s called the World Wide Web.

Crucially, this methodology, when attached to the electronic patient record, removes the argument for all our health details to be stored centrally. Instead, GPs and local health practitioners will be the natural guardians of this sensitive data once more. That means that individually, we can come to decisions about how we want to access our own health data, whether that be by storing it electronically with Google, Microsoft, the health service’s own fledgling “HealthSpace” patient access system, or simply under digital lock and key at our local surgery. And it means that collectively, the debates about if, when and how we let scientific researchers or civil servants access our data en masse in the name of medical advance or efficiency, can be had on their own terms, without the distraction of a juicy centralised database just waiting to be mined.

None of which is to say that if you vote Tory in the next election, you’ll be guaranteed a better NHS IT system. Such a radical change of direction for an IT project that is already partially implemented and at the same time four years overdue, will be a mean feat to pull off, both politically and pragmatically. But to understand if we are getting closer to the vision set out in this report, we must first understand what that vision is. That means embracing slightly more informed mental framework than “it mentions Google and Google [is/is not evil], so that [is/is not] okay”.

Some good coverage of this issue by Micahel Cross

“Identifying gleefully with the anti-government techie culture may become a problem once they actually are the government.”

I haven’t worked out how far I travel with Rafael Behr in last Sunday’s Observer. But he does have a tendency of coming up with really excellent writing on technology and politics. Here he is on the ultimate fate of the Tories enthusiastic embrace of the web ethos:

The Tories are sailing towards power on a strong technological tail wind. But for Cameron and Co to think that translates into a long-term political advantage, let alone a cogent ideology, is delusional. They look admiringly at the energy of social networking sites and at the voluntarism and entrepreneurship that characterise web innovation and they see in it a vast store of civic power. If only, they think, that could be harnessed to meet the social obligations that Labour thinks belong to the state. This is the Holy Grail of so-called compassionate conservatism: to pull back the tide of government, confident that civil society will grow organically into the gap. But there is no substance to it, no evidence, just wireless faith.

What will actually happen is that chunks of the public sector will be parcelled out to online providers, but instead of mass privatisation it will be called post-bureaucratisation. And when it emerges that Facebook and Mumsnet are not quite equal to the task of supplanting the welfare state, social policy will be back to the old, analogue drawing board.

Read the full article here.


Book JacketI took some time about reading Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture. It appeared on my desk when I was working at openDemocracy, which is at least two and a half years ago, and most likely more. The feeling I got when I received it has never left me: that this book was a secret messaage sent especially to me.

Nonetheless, it took me this long to read it, mostly because it is written densely, in an academic style. Fred Turner is assistant professor in the Department of Commnuication at Stanford University, at least he was at the time this book was published (2006). Perservering with his book has paid off.

The book tracks a period of time between the early 1960s and the late 1990s, focussing on the activities of Stewart Brand and the communities he encountered during his extensive career as a social entrpreneur, from his experience with the Merry Pranksters to his founding of the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, an early San Francisco-based BBS. The books is subtitled “Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism”. In particular, Turner demonstrates how Brand brought to a popular audience the activities of both the New Communalist, back-to-the-land movement and the experiments in distributed computing of the latter day Cold War military-academic-industrial complex, using the common contact language he established to do so in order to frame an early, influential strand of information politics which extended to liberal economics, workforce reform… and the dotcom crash.

The book celebrates and illuminates key moments in the history of the digital age, including Douglas Engelbert’s “Mother of All Demos” of 1968 (which Brand filmed), a 1972 photo feature, shot by Anne Liebowitz for Rolling Stone magazine, in which Brand describes the oncoming personal computer revolution as “the best news since psychedelics”, the 1990 online encounter between John Perry Barlow and young New York hackers Masters of Deception, and Wired‘s 1997 cover story “The Long Boom”, which is subtitled thus:

“We’re facing 25 years of prosperity, freedom, and a better environment for the whole world. You got a problem with that?”

I’d like to do another blog poast about that shortly. But in the mean time I suggest you swot up here.

Upside Down Management

I can’t count the number of times I’ve said that to get public service right, Guv need to put the power to change stuff in the hands of people working at the front line. Most recently, in this piece in the New Statesman, I wrote:

“You cannot fix society with computers. People fix society, if you let them. That means freeing nurses, teachers, social workers – and their clients – from the relentless tyranny of Whitehall’s cravings for ever more information. A benevolent state must have a human face, not an unblinking screen.”

So I really enjoyed yesterday’s edition of Peter Day’s always excellent In Business, which is about the management structure of Timpsons, the chain of over 500 cobblers and key cutters.

Chairman of the business, John Timpson, gives real power to the people who run each of his shops, including giving them up to £500 to solve a problem without having to ask up the chain of command, and setting their own prices. He sees his job as spreading the individual innovations this leads each store to come up with across the entire chain.

It’s also interesting to hear Timpson’s attitudes towards digital tills – despite the fact that this technology has “revolutionised modern retail” (Day’s words) Timpson’s shops don’t have them. He believes they get in the way of the customer relationship.