Sunday, 20 July 2014

What is digital?

Yesterday I joined in a discussion on Twitter about "what is digital" and then read the piece that provoked it. Usually you'd do this the other way round, but conversations online don't always follow a linear pattern. That's my excuse anyway and I'm sticking to it.

The piece was called Defining Digital by Matt Jukes.

It's an excellent summary of the problems one faces when trying to define what "digital" actually means. It got me thinking about how I define it and I was with Matt all the way to his statement:

Digital is a belief in the ability of the internet to transform…whether that be society, businesses, education, government or whatever…and the understanding of how that might be achieved.

For me, digital doesn't mean online or relating to the internet. If you're using digital to mean online, just say online. Matt's research shows that it's a far more prevalent term which means users stand a greater chance of understanding it.

The word digital has been around for years and I probably first encountered it when Compact Discs were released in 1982. It was either that or from a friend of my dad who had a digital watch. The red LEDs consumed so much power lighting up the display that you had to hold down a button to see the time.

I'm going to stop reminiscing about tech or I'll end up getting the snaps of my 1986 family holiday to Falmouth out (there's some great pictures of Goonhilly Earth Station), but the point is, the digital media and device I used as examples above have nothing to do with the internet and pre-date the World Wide Web by 10ish years.

So "digital" wasn't synonymous with being online when it first came to prominence, but is it now? 

If you listen to BBC Radio Five Live their station indent says "On digital, online, on smartphone, on tablet". I'm assuming they mean digital radio when they say digital, as they've interfered it's something different from being online. This ambiguous use of "digital" says to me that those in radio think it means something quite different to Matt's definition above and perhaps different sectors (ie government) and those working for it (ie me) might use the term questionably too, to denote something that it isn't.

So based on the above, how would I re-define my understanding of what "digital" is?

Back in 2012, I asked what is Twitter. In summary, I proposed Twitter isn't a platform for sharing ideas, promoting your organisation or getting your message out to the world, that's just stuff you can do with it. I see Twitter as the world's most used open database for storing small pieces of information.

Now, apply this to digital. "Digital" isn't the internet or being online, those are things that use digital technology. "Digital" isn't transformation, that's what you're able to do with it.

Here's what I think digital is: 

An application, service, process or device that uses binary technology, and is often considered superior to any analogue counterpart.

Can you think of something that doesn't fall into this category that's "digital"? It covers CDs, digital radio,  channel shift, mobile phones, social media, and digital watches. For me, this is what digital is.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Does "register to vote" show why a Local GDS wouldn't work?

Register to vote is a new digital service created by the Government Digital Service and is available on GOV.UK.

All you need is your National Insurance Number and it takes about 5 minutes to start the voter registration process.

Satisfaction with GOV.UK users is high, around 95%, and I can say from experience that I found it quick and easy to use, myself.

There are problems with the process once you leave GOV.UK however, in fact the first warning signs are as you finish the GOV.UK part of the process. "contact your local electoral registration office" says the completion message (pictured above), but there's hundreds of them. Given the address of the user is known, wouldn't it be better to do the hard work to make it simple by adding a link to the appropriate council?

Perhaps I'm being unfair, but to me this says to users, "we've done our bit, you're not our problem any more".

User experience once the process is passed to a local government is varied. It works fine for some, however other users have reported no contact after over a month, some say they've received letters when they've asked for email correspondence, others complain that where before they were able to tell a council they'd changed their address in one place, now they have to use two digital services, one on GOV.UK, one on a local government's website.

So why is this occuring?

Whilst there's one digital service to start the process there are hundreds of electoral registration teams that finish it and even though a great deal of work was put into making the start of the process excellent, creating consistency at end seems to have been forgotten.

So, would a Local Governments Digital Service help resolve this? The short answer is no, in fact it's more likely to make things worse. Why? Because the digital practitioners embedded in each local government who could assist, wouldn't be there, they'd be in London or Manchester, or a regional hub, not working alongside the electoral registration teams who complete the work for this service.

One solution would be to operate the whole of the service centrally, but this means centralising not just digital, but an administrative function of local governments which is a fundamental shift in the other direction of localism.

In my view the answer is to improve skills in and collaboration between local governments.

LocalGov Digital will be working on this over the next six months. We'll be creating tools to enable local governments to work together when they need to, but continue to retain the autonomy needed to deliver service that meet the needs of local users.

We'll also be starting to create ways in which local government members and officers can equip themselves with the skills needed to deliver better and more consistent services.

Unlike any proposed separate service, organisation or central team if you're a digital practitioner working in or around local governments right now and you want in, then you're already part of LocalGov Digital.

Let's get digital done better and start joining things up, together as LocalGov Digital.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Have you heard of a hack day hangout?

There's no substitute for face to face communication but sometimes it's just not possible. Take UK GovCamp this year for example. I know for a fact there were local government officers who wanted to attend but couldn't afford to pay for travel themselves, nor could they get their organisation to fund it.

If you're wondering why there was less local government representation at UK GovCamp 14, this may be the answer and as an aside, anyone proposing a centralised local government digital service would need to factor in the travel of talking to multiple service teams at 400 councils across the country, but that's another topic.

After the LocalGov Digital Makers Hack Day I talked about how hack days are essential for better digital services, and LocalGov Digital are working to help create formal structures so collaboration can occur where political priorities and local user needs align. Given that financial constrains are limiting some from attending discover or hack days, I wondered if it was possible to run one solely online.

Generally, the main weapons of choice at a hack day, before if and when anyone gets to the tech, are post-its, flip charts and pens. Online there are tools like Trello for post-its, Google Docs for flipboards and Google Hangouts for free video conferencing and screen sharing, but would these work and is there anything better?

I've seen organisations like Global Jam use Hangouts to bring together a number of physical hack days, but I've not heard of one done just online, so if you have I'd be very grateful if you could point me in their direction please so I can ask them about it and learn from what they did.

As you probably know, LocalGov Digital people are doers, so once we've explored the options we'll be doing this. I'll talk about the topic in another post, but if you're a digital practitioner working in or around local governments I'm sure it'll be of interest to you, so let me know if you want to join in.

Just like the Makers Hack Day, a hack day on a work day attended by around 50 people, it'll be just as much about discovering if it works, as the topic we'll be working on.
This blog is written by Phil Rumens, Vice-Chair of LocalGov Digital, lead for LGMakers and who manages the digital services team at a local authority in England.

The opinions expressed in this weblog are my own personal views and in no way represent any organisation I may have worked for, currently work for, might be thinking of working for, might not be thinking of working for or have never worked for. In fact having said that they, might not even be my views any more as I might have changed my mind so I wouldn't take any of it too seriously.