Posted by: drmiw | December 7, 2011

GovCamp Scotland event notes

I attended the inaugural GovCamp Scotland event on November 7th 2011 in Edinburgh University. GovCamp Scotland is “based on an established international model that applies a Government context to evolving Web 2.0 technologies and examines innovative ways to improve service delivery and engagement with citizens”. This concept is supported by three central pillars: Transparency, Collaboration and Participation.

The aim of the event was to bring private, public and third sectors together as a “first step in forging meaningful relationships across all areas of civil society with the common goal of promoting and enhancing Scotland’s digital credentials”. I attended as a Scottish citizen, web technologist and cloud computing consultant with a particular interest in how this all fits in with the Government’s plans for a low carbon economy.

Introduction and keynotes

Tim O’Shea, Principal of the University of Edinburgh, gave the welcome address. He began with a computer science joke then quickly shifted mood by informing us that the founder of computation as a service, or ‘cloud computing’, John McCarthy had died a fortnight previous. He then went on to laud Scotland’s proud heritage and academic prominence in computer science. As for the future he said that that green computing is “vital” and that we have to jointly construct our digital future, listing the following three things in our country’s favour:

  1. The commitment of the Scottish Government
  2. World leading informatics
  3. A tradition of working together for the common good

Next we had a word from our sponsors – Microsoft. Vice President Robert McDowell gave a brief but inspiring presentation, which he began by reminding us that GovCamp is all about Academia, Business and Government coming together. He asserted that Scotland is a powerful brand in the world and although our country is small and remote its small size actually gives us an advantage because we can move quickly, whilst our remoteness is no limitation in a digital world. Now, I would argue that we are not absolute masters of our destiny because Scotland is part of the UK and our internet traffic is routed through England, which is a limiting factor; but we can still achieve great things with GovCamp. McDowell went on to complete his appointed task by introducing John Swinney who, he claimed, “gets it” and “knows how to get things done”.

Suitably humbled by his introduction, John Swinney, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, began his Keynote speech by saying that Scotland’s ‘problem’ is “too much humility”! Following on from Tim O’Shea’s three points, he said that we must use the ‘common good’ to our advantage and “seize the agenda” by becoming a “connected country”, that this is an opportunity which we can’t afford to pass up because other countries are getting their acts together, and that the Government wants to create the conditions to make things happen in Scotland. According to Swinney the Scottish Government offers three things: leadership,  resources and purchasing power. The plan, he said, is to differentiate Scotland by creating a common purpose with the private sector and pushing them to help deliver an improvement in digital participation in the country through increased internet access and youth education, as well as improved service delivery, while making use of resources in intelligent and innovative ways that fit with a low carbon economy. He cited Vertex Group who employ home workers in the Highlands to provide services to Westminster City Council as a prime exemplar of what can be done.

The second keynote was by Zachary Tumin and you can find his presentation, Collaborate or Perish! The New Collabonomics of the Networked World, on Slideshare. He gave a number of examples of how powerful digital collaboration can be, including the role social networking played in the Egyptian revolution. He said that we need to be humble enough to collaborate as early as possible, as we are doing with GovCamp, and be optimistic because collaborations get better results. So, going back to the previous keynote, we need to be humble as collaborators from different sectors but not humble as a country!

Panel discussions

I’m not going to reproduce a full transcript of who said what in the panel discussions but I will repeat some points that I recall being made by panel members and struck a chord with me.

Objectives: Baseline & Potential

During the first panel discussion a Dundee University representative in the audience asked the panel members how we will use our digital revolution to work with other countries to stop global warming, and there were three answers:

  1. Through leadership (John Swinney)
  2. Through international collaboration in academic research (Tim O’Shea)
  3. Scotland’s example, which will be visible through open data, will inspire other countries (David Alexander from Mydex)

There were some heart-felt sentiments expressed, too:

  • This is an opportunity for transformation – not just incremental improvement
  • We need to look past the benchmarks of other countries – excel rather than just survive

Objectives: Creating a shared vision & outcomes

The second panel discussed the need for a ‘Digital Charter’ and their own personal visions for the future of Scotland.

In a lengthy but passionate monologue, Craig Turpie from StormID began the session by proposing that we “put the citizen at the centre of public service design”, and asserted that this will lead to increased trust and better value. He said that Scotland can be like a “digital start-up” – agile and willing to take risk.

Louise Macdonald, YoungScot’s Chief Executive, called the public sector a “collective force for good”, and she would like to see Scotland become a leading nation with a citizen-centred vision. She also talked about the need to create a “middle ground between technical developers and creative people”.

Alison Mclaughlin from Sopra Group asserted that “technology is for everybody”, but unless people use the available technological systems there is no point having them, no matter how good they are.

Dr Colin Adams from the University of Edinburgh said that the issue is not about technology at all, it’s about people and ideas. In his opinion we need to do the following:

  • Figure out how to use the world-beating computer scientists we have in Scotland and get them communicating with ‘non-geeks’
  • Catch the imagination of kids and, perhaps, even give them all tablet computers
  • Make it easy to do things on government websites, including putting them on mobile devices
  • Make citizens digitally literate
  • Make money out of our open data.

From the audience David Alexander added his vision to the mix. He talked about “de-averaging” digital solutions for individuals, and making them relevant to all different communities. Another audience member got a laugh by asking how we can inject “fun and enthusiasm” into all this to drive collaboration. And on the collaboration front another question was raised: how can we get different IT suppliers to collaborate with each other on public projects so they don’t keep reinventing the wheel?

Themed groups

In the afternoon, after a hearty lunch, we were split into five pre-arranged and facilitated groups to discuss the following themes: Health; Education; Low Carbon Economy; Jobs and Skills; and Public Service Delivery. I had originally been assigned to Public Service Delivery, which was fine, but, given my interest in green cloud computing, the Low Carbon Economy seemed like the right subject for me so I was reassigned to that theme before the event. You can read my notes on the Low Economy workshop in a separate blog post.

Feedback from themed groups

All at GovCamp returned to the main theatre to hear feedback and suggested agenda points from the themed groups. The ideas that came out of the sessions will be discussed by an action group to be formed after this event and they will attempt to set out a more specific agenda and create a network of declared skills.

  • On Education – it shames me to admit I didn’t catch any of the points made!
  • On Health the following recommendations were presented:
    1. Encourage data sharing across government agencies
    2. Engage citizens using the full range of communications
    3. Empower citizens by giving them their own healthcare records to manage
  • On Public Service Delivery, which already has a ‘Commission on the Future..‘ in place (see also the Christie Report) there were high level ideas:
    1. Citizen-focussed collaboration
    2. Recognise the need for a multi-channel approach
    3. Create an empowered society that is more equal and fair
  • On Low Carbon Economy, for which the Government already has a strategy:
    1. More intelligent use of existing open data
    2. More data on energy usage
    3. Research into the pros and cons of home working versus office working
    4. Find ways to encourage communities to get involved and take action – e.g. landlords insulating their properties
  • On Jobs & Skills:
    1. Address the IT skills shortage and the lack of women in IT
    2. Shift the balance in IT away from technology and towards creativity
    3. Strengthen relations between academia and industry
    4. Digital inclusion and accessibility are major issues
    5. We need a more consistent and open policy on the Internet

Closing presentations

Rodrigo Becerra, who as Microsoft’s Managing Director for Worldwide government has been involved in a number of events like this, made the following points:

  • Today is only the beginning
  • The agenda should be local not global
  • There is a massive distrust and disillusionment in authority by the young
  • There is a need to balance transparency with privacy

And finally, Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, reminded us that this is only the first step towards making a difference in Scotland. She then introduced the founding signatories of the new Scottish Digital Participation Charter to the stage to sign the document on behalf of their organisations, and said that others can sign the Charter themselves following the event. We then adjourned to the drinks reception after what proved to be quite an intense day.

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