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May 1st, 2013
02:28 am


On polling, VRM and politicians
I tried to fit this into a couple of tweets a minute ago and that didn't work so...

I went to see Nate Silver of FiveThityEight fame tonight at an IQ2 event. It was good, albeit a little odd since his speaking section was much shorter than the time given over to questions. Still, in a major change to usual IQ2 events, all the questions were sane and provoked interesting answers.

One of the questions, following the "Target story", was about the potential use of purchasing data by government to track things like disease outbreaks. If a lot of people in a certain area are suddenly buying flu medicine what does that mean for the CDC? Of course, today all that data is held behind corporate firewalls and opening that up to government use, even anonymously, is a slippery slope to CISPA or worse. Now, if that data was instead held by individual users in a VRM ecosystem and they chose to allow the government access to it ("notify the government anonymously when I buy these kinds of medicines") then that would be a whole different matter.

Another question was about polling bias. As alobear and I have agreed for years there is a natural bias in polling for the kind of people who are willing to do polls. As Mr Silver said tonight, less than 40% of American's now have landline phones, so if your polling company is still relying on robocalling only landlines you're mostly going to get annoyed old people (which may be fine if you're looking for Republican voters, but I digress). The questioner asked if any polling companies can be trusted to provide truly accurate data. Mr Silver said, as alobear has previously recounted to me, that they try to control for a lot of things like age / gender / race / socioeconomic status / etc but in the long run it still comes down to people who are prepared to fill in an online form (mostly younger people) or go through a telephone interview.

Now, here's the interesting bit I thought up on the way home. If there's a tight correlation between what we buy / what we watch / where we go / the people in our social graph / etc and how we are likely to vote (and I'm sure there is, the ecochamber is real) then what if that could be used, via VRM, instead of polling? Since people have been shown to lie to pollsters (c.f. Bradley Effect) perhaps this would be even more accurate?

Of course, the next step on from there is naturally why have elections at all? If we can look at people's everyday lifestyle habits and from that pick out their likely voting choices then it would be feasible to simply elect politicians by looking at the data of people in their constituency. At a further level of granularity, if it were possible to devise with some accuracy people's likely opinions of different political planks then the system would automatically elect someone standing with commitments to the planks most agreed with by people in their area - perhaps leading to more just two people standing in each constituency in the US. At the very finest level it might even be possible to enact policy by simply studying how people act - doing away with politics completely (if someone would like to write a paper on this I'm happy with an "inspired by" credit ;-) ).

Naturally I'm not taking any of this seriously. It starts off by relying on a lot of things (universal VRM, people opening their data, excellent prediction methods, etc) and ends by removing the universal right to vote in a democracy. It does however make one think about how interesting things are going to get as there is more and more data on each of us "out there" for people to use.

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February 1st, 2013
02:25 am


Computing at Schools

Well, this is my first post on DW as opposed to LJ so here's hoping this whole cross-posting thing works.

As many people know I've been involved for a long time with a number of groups that are involved with young people and technology including but not limited to STEMNet, Young Rewired State, Code Club, Mozilla, Apps for Good and The Social Mobility Foundation. For some time I've been meaning to find out more about Computing at School - the education arm of the British Computer Society. For those folks in the tech industry that  have heard of the organisation at all often have an unfortunate idea that it's a stuffy organisation dominated by the likes of Microsoft. So, when I had the opportunity to go along to their meeting at BETT this evening (having to cancel an evening with Martha Lane Fox at NESTA to do so!) I jumped at the chance.

What I found was an extremely open and welcoming group with a very much "no them, only us" policy. Jointly made up of folks with a technology background as well as teachers (of all ages), teacher trainers and academics I was very much impressed at what the group has achieved since it's inception. For example the inclusion of Computing Science as the "fourth science" in the upcoming National Bacalaureat is to be celebrated. This level of policy work, after dedicated and step-by-step work with the DfE, goes hand in hand with building up a nation-wide Network of Excellence of inspired folks of all backgrounds who really want to make a difference from the ground up. These are organised into Regional Hubs and I will certainly be looking into the one in my area.

Which brings me to my first observation:

There are many bottom up organisations working in this area - how can they best work together?

I asked the CAS folks if they work with the groups I've listed above. They answered that while they are impressed and inspired by their work their work they don't meet regularly with them and there is certainly the possibility of work being unnecessarily duplicated. I've strongly suggested that one way to help ameliorate this issue is to start by meeting regularly with the Digital Makers folks at NESTA as a cornerstone of starting to help get these groups working together.

Connected to that another observation:

How can groups in this arena share resources?

We all want the same things - to teach teachers, ideally to help kids teach each other and to produce projects that will delight and inspire the next generation of digital makers. The problem is that the groups doing this are locking what they are doing behind their own walled gardens. Is this due to how they get their funding, is it brand protection or are their other reasons? What can be done to overcome this?

For a start I would love to put together (in conjunction with someone with some actual design skills) one online map which can be toggled to show primary schools working with Code Club, unaffiliated computer clubs, schools involved with CAS (especially Lead Schools), locations of CAS Master Teachers, locations of hackspaces and similar organisations, involved university and college departments (both Computing and Education), etc, etc.

My next observation was:

There was a lack of hairy people in the audience.

It's a truism that long hair and beards do tend to go with the "hacker" end of UK technical community. While organisations like Microsoft were well represented and it was excellent to see a solid commitment from the folks at Raspberry Pi there wasn't much, at least in this meeting, from folks involved in what might be called the "hacker" or possibly "start-up" community. I spoke to a couple of the folks who run CAS and suggested that I could work with them to highlight a number of places (Google Campus, Silicon Drinkabit, Hacks and Hackers, Hackspace Network, many others) where such motivated people hang out on a regular basis and lightning talks and chats over beer could be done to help spread the word and generate new volunteers.

Another thought:

Should CAS and the other groups get involved in gamification of this area?

Should thought be given to awards at different levels for schools, teachers, teacher trainers, techie helpers and most of all kids for achievement in key areas? If so how would this be managed given the current level of limited resources?

I was extremely pleased to hear people discussing the idea of running multiple "hack days" (some people don't like the name) to bring teachers and technologists together. I've been suggesting to the Digital Makers folks for a while that this is desperately needed to get CAS and the other folks I've mentioned under the same roof while mixing with teachers and teacher representatives.

How do we best run a number of awesome "mixer" events without it becoming overwhelming for non-techies?

Lots of thought needs to go into this but I think the most important objective has to be coming up with something like "5 things I can do after I leave in order to stay in touch and make this a success" for each type of attendee so the ball keeps rolling. There are so many awesome technical groups that could get involved - starting with the folks that were at the recent Mozfest.

On top of all this there are still my long-term questions:

How do we fix the terrible CRB system?

How do we build a social network of people who are keen to be involved in this area?

Pertinent given Emma M.'s recent "thunderclap" post

How do we fix the problem of kid-to-kid and adult-to-kid online communication?

Possibly by using a platform like Makewav.es? What I'm very keen to do is leverage the new Government Digital Platform Identity Assurance platform to allow adult-to-child online communication by solidly verified adult users.

Now - on top of those I can add:

Which awesome people can I find to help me realise my dream of building a production line of Scratch / Arduino powered micro quadcopters?

Who was it tonight that said that they had a great set of "Wonders of Computer Science" slides? Can I steal them?

How do we answer the "why bother learning this stuff?" question? Should the community be building a set of videos by people kids know (a-la Brian Cox et al) and kids themselves showing off what they can do that can be used to answer this question?

Anyway - that got less and less structured as it went on but I think I covered everything I meant to ;-). Tomorrow it's time to sign up to the CAS forum and start opening some of these as threads!

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January 12th, 2013
03:12 pm


Discovering DarkMatter2525's videos on atheism
Why god actively facilitates evil (lack of action is action).

Quote from a different one: "So, yo conceal very hint of yourself from every possible detection and put up an impressive smokescreen in the form of an obvious, elegant, unified and seemingly accurate natural explanation for everything you secretly did and if we didn't find your set of primitive, perverse and frankl unbelievable
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<a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1BzP1wr234&amp;feature=youtube_gdata_player" target="_blank">Why god actively facilitates evil</a> (lack of action is action).

Quote from a different one: &quot;<span style="line-height: 1.4;">So, yo </span>conceal<span style="line-height: 1.4;"> very hint of yourself from every possible detection and put up an impressive smokescreen in the form of an obvious, elegant, unified and seemingly accurate natural explanation for everything you secretly did and if we didn&#39;t find your set of primitive, perverse and frankl </span>unbelievable<span style="line-height: 1.4;" </span>fairy-tales<span style="line-height: 1.4;"> onvincing enough to discard reason and disregard everything we know about anything at all you were going t </span>punish<span style="line-height: 1.4;"> s forever without mercy for eternity for the crime of not being stupid enough to believe impossible nonsense for no good reason.&quot;</span>I suggest you check them all out.

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December 17th, 2012
04:53 pm


An open letter to David Burrowes MP following his recent article on gay marrage in the UK
Dear Mr Burrowes,

Since your election in 2001 I have been impressed with the work that you have done both for your Enfield Southgate constituency, of which I am a member, and in parliament. In particular your work in relation to Chalk Farm hospital and Mr Gary Mckinnon are worthy of mention and praise. I have personally contacted you a number of times in relation to political causes I care about and, while we often disagree, you have never been anything less than courteous and informative.

It is therefore with disappointment that I read your 17th December 2012 article in Conservative Home entitled Let's take the gay marriage debate out of the party political arena.

I fully agree that the debate about the introduction of gay marriage should not be one that is drawn along party political lines. Like any decision based on personal MP ethics this should be a free vote - which is now the case as you indicated in your essay.

I must disagree however about your statement that "Unlike the Republicans, thankfully, we Conservatives do not do culture wars and should not start now." The Conservative Party has a long history of starting 'culture wars' with perhaps the most famous being the 'Back to Basics' campaign of the John Major era. Of course, the Conservative Party is far from the only political group to do this but to claim that this is something that conservatives do not engage in is rather naive.

I appreciate your concern that MPs have no yet had an opportunity to vote on any government proposals in this area. This is because they are currently under discussion. Now is the ideal time for those who have strong views on this measure, such as you and I, to state them loudly and clearly before a vote is put before parliament.

While none of the major parties have put gay marriage as a plank in their manifestos it is far from unusual for legislation to brought before parliament that is not planned out in full before the election. After all, part of the skill of governance is the ability to respond to changes in circumstance.

There is now a strong support for gay marriage in the UK backed by the majority of citizens from all walks of life. This support continues to grow and now is the ideal time to have this debate and implement appropriate legislation. The fact that less than 10% of currently sitting MPs signed the open letter in today’s Daily Telegraph is surely indicative of national feeling.

I am saddened that you speak of gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell as having “made some noise on the steps of CCHQ”. While I am not a fan of Mr Tatchell myself I respect the tireless work he has done on behalf of the LGBTQ community and I think your statement does him a disservice

Likewise your statement that Ben Summerskill, CEO of Stonewall, informed you in 2010 that gay marriage did not feature on one of their surveys appears to be deliberately misleading. Stonewall now strongly supports Mr Cameron’s proposals for gay marriage and has a web-page dedicated to that effect at : www.stonewall.org.uk/marriage.

I do agree that recent petition run by the Government's Equalities Office was a waste of time. Currently such online petitions are far too easy to ‘spoof’ - hopefully something that will be avoided in future via the introduction of the National Online ID Assurance Programme in 2013. In the meantime I believe the way to gather such information is via national surveys. For example the June 2012 YouGov survey carried out by Stonewall entitled "Living together: British attitudes to lesbian, gay and bisexual people in 2012" showed 71% in favour of gay marriage (see http://www.stonewall.org.uk/documents/living_together_2012.pdf).

I am glad you bring up the important differentiation between churches, of whatever religion and denomination, being allowed to perform same-sex marriages and being forced to do so. I am strongly in favour of such organisations being given free choice of conscience in these matters. However, that is not relevant in the discussion of the state definition of marriage. The recent statement by Culture Secretary Maria Miller that the Church of England and the Church in Wales will specifically be exempt from any forthcoming laws about gay marriage shows that the present government intends to codify this exemption with respect to those specific institutions.

Given the above I think it is rash to start using phrases like “threat to religious freedom”. The proposed changes are not a threat to any manner of worship and will not affect the conduct of any church in the UK unless they wish to opt-in to performing gay marriages. It is a fallacy to propose that giving someone the right to do something that you disagree with is a reduction in your freedom. Allowing interracial couples to marry was not a reduction in the freedom of miscegenationists.

I value your statements about the number of times “marriage” appears in current British laws. This gives us an idea of the extent that those soon to be able to marry will be bound by the law and convention of this country. The introduction of Civil Partnerships in 2004 was surely a larger change to British Common Law since, as you state, the laws regarding marriage in this country date from at least the 13th century so many precedents are well established. The simple matter of extending the nature of those allowed to marry will not require the re-examination of those statues.

I strongly agree with you in the appalling case of Mr Adrian Smith of Trafford. No public organisation should consider themselves able to negatively affect the employment of one of their workers for personal statements made outside of working hours. As long as Mr Smith treated all the clients of Trafford Housing Trust with equal respect he should have been in no way impacted by his statements.

However, I could not disagree more over your statements regarding education. The notion that teachers have a “freedom of conscience” during their working periods is also a fallacy. While speaking on behalf of the state they are already constrained by a number of regulations as to what is appropriate. For example, no openly racist teachers would be allowed to continue to teach in an British schools. However, I believe that as long as they conform to agreed regulations inside school anything they say out of hours is open to full common law free speech practices. Most local authority guidelines for teachers already cover how to deal with questions of homosexuality. These would merely need to be expanded to indicate that gay marriage is normal - removing the need to the teacher to make a personal statement about their opinion on the matter one way or another.

There may be some minor confusion due to the difference between the recognition of such weddings by the state versus that from religion but I believe that, as with everything to do with personal religion, this is something that should be discussed in private between parents and their children. The state has absolutely no business making any statements regarding religion in schools outside of comparative religion classes.

I join with you in hoping that hate-filled voices on both sides of the argument are relegated to the sidelines and that calmer voices prevail in the discussion.

I commend your personal “commitment to the equal value of people whatever their sexuality” but I strongly disagree with your view that marriage is a “distinctive institution for a man and woman”. This is a view inspired by a particular religious world-view and, with respect, such considerations should not be the basis for ethical decisions made by the state.

Finally, I agree that there are many important political discussions currently underway. Given the paucity of opposing opinion to Mr Cameron’s proposals, both within parliament and within the British population in general, I hope this legislation can be quickly passed so that politicians can return to the vital discussions of state.


David Durant

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November 13th, 2012
09:46 pm


Governments and digital engagement

This morning while I was working from home I listened to my boss giving evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee for a new report that's being worked on about digital engagement in government in the UK. There was recorded video at the usually excellent Parliament TV site but it's broken tonight so I can't find a link. Google it if you're interested.

Now, I'm very into this as you can tell from my twitter feed which is largely made up of places like the Government Digital Service (GDS), OpenGov Hub, etc but it's nice to see MPs finally getting people in to ask the right questions (even if it's just to ask 38 Degrees to stop sending them so much spam).

However, while there was a lot of good back-and-forth what disappointed me was that, despite repeated questions brushing on the topic, there was no explicit statements by anyone on the difference between representative democracy and direct democracy. I am a great fan of the former and deeply suspicious of the latter. As one of the MPs put it, direct democracy quickly leads to "tabloid based voting" and given the make-up of ownership of mass media in this country I find that a very scary concept.

While many on the committee seemed focused on how internet based tools could be used to shape legislation I think their power will next be felt, as Tom put forward, in making MPs lives easier. Tom suggested that an MP could have a tool which showed currently proposed amendments coming up for votes alongside an easy to use list of comments from varying sources (other MPs, the media, specialists, the general public, etc). This is an excellent idea but there is something else I would focus on at the same time.

What I have wanted to see for some time is a system that replaces the painful spamming of 38 Degrees with a simple dashboard based system that constituency MPs can use to see what registered voters in their area think of proposed legislation or particular national (or local) campaigns. Up to now such a site would have been impossible due to their being no system for positively identifying whether a person lived in a particular MPs constituency. However, in what I believe is one of the most important technical projects currently under way, GDS is working on enabling 3rd party identity assurance for government websites and, I very much hope, as a mechanism that then can be used by non-governmental services. Once a website can prove that someone lives in a particular constituency and can vote it's a short step to a dashboard that says "In the ward of Enfield Southgate 41% of 22,243 voters who indicated a preference (31%) stated that they were not in favour of the Draft Communications Data Bill. Click here for detailed comments". Comments would be voted up by karma-based commenting in the style of slashdot. MPs would be able to leave their own feedback on the proposition and, importantly, by hooking the system up to They Work For You there would also be a dashboard for voters in that constituency to show how many times, and on what subjects, the local MP differed from local views recorded on the site.

It is absolutely not the job of an MP to always reflect the views of the majority of people in their constituency - they must vote with their conscience. However, it is perfectly legitimate for the voters to record their views on particular issues and then use the response of the local MP to guide how they wish to vote come the next election.

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September 23rd, 2012
08:12 pm


Dr Who Eulogy

It's important to say up-front that this wasn't given by me or, in fact, given for anyone I knew. My friend Simon H. knew Matt well and has received permission from the speaker (Ian) to have a copy of this put up online. I certainly think it bares repeating.


Lots of gaps here too, key missing points include Matt as ace and prolific reviewer of Who fiction, as a generous helper of other writers (there must be at least a dozen Dr Who books with a thanks credit for Matt as a test-reader, including one for his double expertise in the academic book- Doctor Who and Philosophy) and the fact his initials are on the front of a guide to the 5th Dr as a little nod from the cover artist. Then there's his hilarious Dr Who websites, his 3D Computer rendered models and photoshopped art for when Lego wasn't enough. The saga of Matt's quest to become a full member of the Dalek Builders League to get hold of accurate blueprints for a computer model tickles me immensely. It is a quest of asking lots of slightly curious chaps questions you already know the answers too until they trust you enough to finally tell you something you don't know. It is a quest few complete and only slightly more would bother with.  Aren't you glad I didn't go on?

'I'm talking to you about Matt and Doctor Who because Matt loved Doctor Who. I love Doctor Who and I loved Matt loving Doctor Who. I think there's some algebra there you can probably work out for yourselves.

'So why did Matt love this frankly ridiculous programme? There are a hundred answers but here's one of the ones I think is most right. Because it demanded your involvement back. Doctor Who at its worst, and sometimes its best, requires a viewer actively engaged, excusing the plot holes, ignoring the dodgy effects, filling in the hinted at back-stories and cosmic histories. 'It's a story full of stories and full of gaps in between them, and it invites those of us who love it to play gleefully in those gaps. As the Doctor once said “What's the point in being grown up if you can't be childish sometimes?” You start off making your new stories with Lego and end up forced to just use words.

'Matt wrote just one “official” Doctor Who story. If there'd been more Matt I know there would have been more. Some of us had a plan. 'He also wrote three glorious spin off stories featuring characters that had escaped into their own adventures beyond the Doctor's pull. They're unsurprisingly delicious because Matt's writing reflects the best of Who- a sense of wonder and the ridiculous- concepts bigger than your head and dizzying gear shifts from the comic to the poignant. A giant space woodlouse falls over in the mud while you learn about despair, acceptance and people moving on.

'Heart, mind, soul, qualia- it's full of that stuff you can't quite pin down and dissect.
And, woven through it, one idea that keeps coming back-“The universe is made not of atoms, but of stories.”

'All of life's a story in the end and Doctor Who's as easy to love as life itself. It's a story made of other stories, and like life it's sometimes awful and painful and sometimes so glorious time seems to stop, and the hero who wanders through it is clever and kind and wise and, no matter how old he gets, always a child. Matt loved Doctor Who and it loved him back. He's part of its story now and he always will be.'

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August 17th, 2012
01:57 am


Linkage reduction

Cut for interestCollapse )

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August 14th, 2012
02:23 am


Young Rewired State 2012
So, it's all over for another year. I discovered how difficult it is to mentor a team of remote kids based in their own homes across the internet. Not because of technology issues, although we had those, but because it's very easy for them to drop out at any time and not come back (or for their parents to drag them away to do chores).

There were tons of amazing projects at the Festival of Code weekend - these are some of my favourites:
  • Way to Go (uses crowd-sourcing to provide accessibility information for disabled folks)
  • Marauder's Map (funny and great display of technology. If you have a microphone click the microphone and say "I solemnly swear I am up to no good" to log in!) 
  • TruMps (amusing, great use of HTML5 and CSS3 for whizzy graphics)
  • Manchester Image Archive (compare old pictures of locations to current views on Streetmap)
  • Dog Journeys (use GPS to map the routes you use to walk your dog and share with and use other people's)
  • Humap (updates navigation directions from google maps to including references to landmarks - "turn left at Tescos" instead of "take the 3rd left")
  • Smart Move (build custom heatmaps of London using criteria rated by you in order to find places you might like to live and then view properties for sale in those areas)
  • ISS Track (track the current position of the ISS)
  • Postcode Wars (compare two different areas, really beautiful layout and plugin architecture -- a must for all coders)
A one minute wrap-up from Tiffany St James.

Tiffany St James-YRS2012 from Rebel Uncut on Vimeo.

20 minute thoughts from the SAP sponsors.

A brilliant thank-you video.


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August 12th, 2012
03:32 pm


My post YRS 2012 quote

The way to happier society is through more democracy and a fairer economic model. The way to achieve those things is through open information and sharing. A major way to foster openness and collaboration is to do so through software. Want to create a better future? Teach kids to code!

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July 24th, 2012
01:03 am


Response to @hubmum's post about finding developers

I've just finished reading Emma Mulqueeny's blog post about What to do when you cannot find a developer. In brief Emma says that she gets a lot of requests from organisations looking for developers to create websites and apps and that the response is that Rewired State is not a tech agency and that they neither have the resources or the remit to do that. She especially says "Obviously if you are trying to do this on mates rates or for equity then you need to move on and find another thing to do in life".

I completely agree with what Emma says in her post. It's definitely not the responsibility of Rewired State to act as a broker between devs and those that need them. That said, she recently passed on a request from Consumer Focus to me asking if I could run a project for them using coders that I knew. I set up the project with two YRS alumni and it ran for a number of weeks, delivered an excellent first release on time and earned the two young programmers great testimonials for university applications and a fair wage for their work (I chose not to take a cut in this instance).

There are developers out there that are keen to find such projects to do - especially for NGOs. The fact this drive has been around for a while is shown by fact the website created by my group in YRS 2010 (Will Work for Peanuts) was specifically designed to bring those groups together.

Rewired State is not the organisation to do this but I think there could be enough momentum for one to be created. It would need to bring together developers, project managers, designers and groups needing web / app work in a way that is realistic about what can be done, how much time can be committed from those involved and what is a fair payment (or at least be extremely up front about lack of payment).

If people are interested in discussing how this might be done drop me a line (dave@bowsy.co.uk) and we'll see about starting the conversation after YRS 2012.

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