This post is a slightly more structured version of the report I presented at the end of the second (and final) day, with the slides available here. It’s reconstructed from speaking notes and is presented to give virtual attendees a chance to sample my dubious words of wisdom. All comments are still welcome!
The second day of the conference was certainly as interesting as the first, although the approach was quite different in parts, drawing on the political process and political science rather than the more legal approach of Day One. The theme for this was set by Agustí Cerrillo, director of Law & Political Sciences at UOC, in his opening remarks, highlighting the importance of co-operation between the businesses active in the area, although this raises further questions about the appropriate balance between self-regulation and established legal mechanisms. Our main questions were ‘what will we do’ – what will the development of social networking enable us to do, and ‘how will we stay safe’ – i.e. how we and our services are protected, noting that cybersecurity in the UK and US are seen as part of a broader narrative of national security but also that political participation and similar uses require confidence in security, data protection and more if they are to be as transformative as promised.
“In a time of crisis, the international community turns its attention to the Information Society”. This remark, included in the Spanish government’s recent update to the Avanza plans discussed so clearly by Oscar Martinez in the second session of the day, is a really important one, and we can see the parallels for this in many jurisdictions, including those like Ireland where economic growth was said to have been built on ICTs. The difference, though, is that we are now more interested in public services and political context rather than in attracting large industries for hardware and software alone. The next Spanish presidency of the EU will take forward important topics: safety on the network, e-commerce, copyright protection as priorities. On the specific issue of safety, the role of ‘confidence, security and accessibility’ helps us to understand why it matters. However, it is important to situate this work in the context of recommendations of the Council of Europe, the OECD, the ITU and others. For our purposes, we should come away today knowing that there are interesting projects at a national level that can be a building block for international co-operation.
Oh what a difference an O makes – this was the key point I take away from Jose Manuel Alonso’s discussion of open government, as distinguished from e-government. His three pillars of citizen-centred services, designed with transparency and accountability, and the fostering of innovation, underline the role of open data in the broader governmental project. He was critical, too, of the focus on availability rather than use in some of the metrics and research available at present. Usefully, then, Nacho Alamillo’s discussion of security risks, and the need to foster a culture of security, made an important link between electronic administration and the need for protection and proper planning.
Whatever about the economic situation, there are certainly good examples of where trust in politicians is at a low level, with the example of the expenses of British members of parliament cited by Ismael Pena-Lopez in his opening remarks. He paid tribute to the Guardian’s tool that enabled users to assist in the massive project of reviewing the disclosed documents. Indeed, this entire affair is characterised by intruiging uses of both law and technology – FOI precipitated it, new media stirred it up, open data enhanced scrutiny and even the political reforms included the appointment of Tim Berners-Lee to reform UK government policy on data. So Jose Antonio Donaire’s comments on a ‘crisis of authority’ and the looming paradigm shift are helpful, as is Alberto Ortiz’s reminder that no political party can win an election on a promise to digitise the administration alone! We also heard, in the last session, a very helpful discussion of the need for political spaces 2.0 rather than mere politics 2.0, and I think that the presentation by Ricard Espelt showed how, even at a local level, the concerns of the citizen can be put at the centre of new models. His virtuous circle of complaints, resolutions and reforms is a remarkable case study and, along with other presentations today, serve as a timely reminder that consideration of social networking and its social context should not begin and end with the Obama campaign. We are reminded by Maarta Cantijoch’s research that those in the ‘critical’ category are attracted by unconventional or extra-representative forms of participation and how new technology can facilitate that.
We have taken care, though, not to fall into the trap of believing that either data or platforms can solve everything. There are, as ever, mixed consequences. Take for example the application that Jose Manuel Alonso discussed: Are You Safe Washington DC, using information from the DC data catalog to create an iPhone application that provides information on the crime stats where you stand. To me,this is a creative use of public data and an example of the right spirit, but what of the consequences of the on-site ‘blacklisting’ of a neighbourhood – or indeed the fact that the application itself depends on being permitted by Apple to be included in the iTunes App Store, with some controversial exclusions in recent weeks? Finally, we returned to the question of IP, in Graells’ discussion of Creative Commons licensing in Catalonia, which, as well as showing how to drive through a positive project, highlights the ongoing dialogue between creativity and bureaucracy, as he put it.
So what to we do next? Well first of all, we can take up Alonso’s invitation to send comments to the W3C’s Access to Government interest group. But we should also be cautious – to build on Ortiz’s discussion of the 19th-century ‘come back tomorrow’ satire, if we were to ‘come back next year’, would we see the same politicans using Web 2.0 like they promised? Espelt said that his project was in ‘constant beta’, which is a fair description of many of the projects discussed today. Indeed, if we were to look back to last year, or two years ago, the sites being discussed would have been different – a lot more Myspace and a lot less Twitter. Thinking of Twitter, then, the conversation through that platform has been very interesting, and deserves reading (in multiple languages).
To conclude: social networking forms a very important part of what we are doing right now, but some issues have been canvassed with earlier discussions on virtual identity (e.g. Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen, nearly 15 years ago!). Today’s proceedings have been characterised by the experience of learning what has been happening, not just by national governments but by sub-national entites and international collaboration. The legal discussions of Day 1 are useful here, particularly where we can understand the role of law as facilitator of innovation and protector of an open, activist culture. We must also consider whether existing laws are being enforced, and the social consequences of non-enforcement, particular in the area of data protection and privacy. I do hope that the conference has been as valuable to participants present and virtually present as it has been to me.