Blogs in other places … including digital trends in social innovation

You only have so many blogs in you – right?

I am currently blogging mostly on my work pages over at Nesta – you can see if you scroll down past the mugshot to a list of Alice Casey Blogs at Nesta which I guess I dont need to duplicate in full here – except for the one below as I think it sums up a wide range of interests I’m working on quite nicely on how people are using new tech to make a social impact.

Digital Social Innovation : 11 Trends to Watch

People are using digital technology to revolutionise how we make social impact and to develop useful new resources for everyone. We know this is happening in a wide range of ways but is often informal and community-driven which means that finding and supporting people who are delivering or expanding great project ideas is a difficult task as the field is not very visible. We’re trying to increase this visibility by crowdmapping this space.

If you or someone you know is working on projects in the areas below please let us know about them by adding them to the open crowdmap over at You can read the detail and find more examples via the detailed article under each link.

  1. Crowdfunding is a great example of how online networks can disrupt the usual way of doing things, in this case; funding new projects. The number and type of platforms has grown in many directions, whether sourcing volunteer time alongside fundraising, providing public match-funding for community projects or creating revenue sharing for social enterprises.
  2. Crowdmapping became more widely known when it was used in disaster relief operations such as that after the Haiti earthquake. It showed how usefully social media and citizen reports could be to target relief more effectively by collecting this information rapidly for anyone to view on a live map. How to develop this for more ongoing citizen engagement and accountability is a live question.
  3. Crowdsourcing is a term that covers all kinds of ways in which information is gathered from a large crowd and used to create new insights. There are some exciting developments using crowdsourcing within top-down decision making processes in systematic ways to create direct engagement on governance.
  4. Sensor networks are becoming more common as sensor technology becomes cheaper and more widely accessible. They are particularly well suited for monitoring areas of common popular concern where it is difficult for an individual body to gather quality and quantity of information, for example citizen-led pollution monitoring.
  5. Open hardware is the creation of physical products through using digital processes. The social applications are hugely varied, from medical products to sensors to a wide range of tools and other devices.
  6. Data powers applications of many kinds, and the social impact applications of data are hugely varied, but they depend on the quantity, quality and availability of this data. In the detailed article you can read more about what big, open, linked data actually is and why it is so important for social impact projects.
  7. Open source code helps people to avoid starting from scratch when creating new projects. When your project is a volunteer-led initiative, it is incredibly valuable to understand more about how code sharing platforms like GitHub work.
  8. Open licenses help people to freely share any of the things they have created for others to re-use. Whether that is data of any kind, or content; knowing you are free to re-use and build on existing knowledge is an important foundation for digital social innovation.
  9. Citizen science describes a movement that unlocks new resource for research and analysis. The zooniverse platform is a great aggregator for examples of projects, whether getting the public to help classify cancer cells, or monitoring light pollution or using health data to understand chronic health conditions
  10. Open learning takes place informally in many ways online, for example using Wikipedia or Youtube to find out information or to receive instruction. However, there is an increasing movement towards making comprehensive online learning resources available for free or cheaply online and it is also fuelling all the technical and digital learning needed to make the most of all the opportunities that digital innovations offer, for example through free and open coding courses.
  11. Collaboration spaces like FabLabs and hackerspaces aren’t of course an entirely digital phenomenon, but we wanted to include them here because getting together face to face is still incredibly important to accelerating the new social applications that can come from digital technology. If you know where to look, you’ll find many exciting meetups to collaborate and develop new digital projects – or just to hang out.

The 11 digital social innovation trends above are the areas we found that seem to be particularly exciting and important to developing social impact through digital innovations. These trends overlap and depend on oneanother to create social impact – no doubt you can think of more! We are only at the beginning of realising what can be achieved through combining these trends to create entirely new ways of creating products and services with real social value.

Anything missing? Want to know more? Contact us via @digi_si or email Peter Baeck & Alice Casey to talk further about DSI and of course, dont forget to add yourself to our map. We’d love to hear what you’re doing.

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Rational Parliament : Fracking

rational parliamentOn Tuesday evening I wandered down to Conway Hall in London to help run the Rational Parliament – an experimental debating forum for issues that matter to citizens, but that are very hard to find unbiased, evidence based info on. We debated the rather hot topic of shale gas extraction or ‘fracking’. You can hear more about what went on in the debate over at the Rational Parliament blog.

I was there more to look at how we structured the debate and to understand how to get different experiences of debate and understanding for those attending the session. A few experimental things were trialled including using a language expert to help people reflect on the way speakers manipulate language when making their points; a way of using cards that can be held up to visually express when they felt a speaker needed to give more evidence to be credible, and also the way in which the actual topics for discussion were sourced and voted on by the room. These experiments worked together to achieve a more collaborative experience that aimed to raise understanding in the group compared to a more traditional ‘broadcast’ style debate.

Expect further experimentation, and some more knotty topics for debate in the New Year!

Mozfest : Indicators for measuring the impact of news (part two)

So; as mentioned in the last post on here I have been thinking about understanding, simply communicating, and measuring impact in news.

I’m now going to delve a bit further into this; I’m paying particular attention to citizen-interest topics, social justice in all its forms; any stories penned by campaigning journalists, activists and citizen reporters as well as those representing ‘solutions’ journalism.

Mozfest measuring news

In my last blog I got to the basic doodle above after saying that a finely layered hierarchy (a pyramid) might not be useful to us to communicate impact as it quite a blunt tool and implies that change only happens in one way – ie. by climbing to the top of the hierarchy of ‘change’.  I do however think that we can still usefully group this information – so have grouped these basic categories in a simple way that can help us focus on the ‘type’ of change we want to see as a result of our online journalism.

Lets go into this a bit further.

I think we are looking at three groups within this simple impact measurement:

First group: 

1) People read it (Measured in pageviews, click throughs etc.)

2) People comment on it (Measured in quantity and quality of exchanges, sources of comments)

3) They share it (Measured in depth, frequency and diversity of share – eg. across many networks, to non-target readerships)

This first group is important because it represents broad reach and demonstrates a base of interest and potential network emerging from readership. It can of course help inform the content creator in a live way as to how their stories are being received. It could be seen as a proxy for relevance/interest of some kind or it would be being shared, commented on or even read.The challenge here is understanding the diversity of the shares across relevant indicators (are you breaking out of the echo-chambers of opinion?) and also the response of the reader to the content. (positive or negative). So far as I know there is no simple open source tool to help citizen journalists do this to ensure they are not just ‘talking to themselves’.

Second group:

1) They do something offline (Join a meeting in local area, attend a protest etc.)

2) They fund it – probably online- (though donations, crowdfunding, subscription)

The second group represents a step towards making specific change – so to me seems like it has a different quality of engagement; it has a cost in time or money to the ‘reader’. It is a form of journalism that has somehow become directed towards a common purpose, a specific action in a more ‘hands on’ way. The challenges here are measuring how likely the individual is to ‘convert’ into an active citizen on the topic in question and go on to construct a citizen-led response. Are there ways of monitoring this conversion process through integrating relevant platforms like meetup or crowdfunding sites into citizen journalism tools or dashboards. Is there a way of promoting action beyond ‘sharing’ in a more visible way? (eg. at the minute ppl have a set of sharing buttons on articles, what about addition of ‘do something’ buttons?)

Third group:

1) Decision maker interacts/responds to it (Measured by relevant actions/statements )

This is different from the other two as it represents a response, not an action under direct control of the reader. It represents impact on specific power dynamics. If the head of the company or government or whatever you’re writing about replies or changes their policy as a result, then you know you made a difference. In some ways it is perhaps more linked to ‘group 1’ – a sense of mass movement rather than a deep/constructive citizen led movement. To my mind both types of change are required – the one that people begin to build for themselves as represented in group 2, but the one that they lobby for against power as represented in group 3. 

The challenge here is who to target, how to be heard- and how to know if you are on the fringes of being heard by those in power who you want to affect. Are there ways of measuring readership by organisation that could help activists know when they are beginning to tap into relevant social networks of those in power?

It is clear that there is scope to develop some accessible tools for citizens and journalist activists to understand and target impact more effectively. Perhaps they are already being built somewhere? Let me know if you have found some and want to share!

Mozfest : measuring the impact of news

A couple of weekends ago the glorious Mozfest happened in Ravensbourne college right next to the  02 dome in London. If you haven’t been before you should, (to Mozfest I mean). You’ll find awesome people and atmosphere, something tech related for everyone to get involved in from all the makers activities to the open badges work, and an array of surprisingly nice crustless sandwiches. All well and good I hear you say – but what hsa this to do with news? Well, the Mozfest folks look at journalism as one of their areas for development – and this is my personal area of interest – I beelined it up to the top floor to find out more.

Why is measuring impact of news so important?

We could answer this in a number of different ways. In a way, at the heart of it this is about power and learning. If you control media (or you control your own consumption of media) then in a way you reduce diversity of opinion and stories you are exposed to ; and you could argue that reduced exposure to alternative viewpoints therefore reduces learning and collective understanding. We now use so few sources, increasingly so few websites to get our news -in effect tailoring our own customised ‘agreement’ channels to view our online world. We can easily create our own lens to view the world, one which provides little challenge to our own views and assumptions about the world. Its easy and perhaps more comfortable to live in a news echo chamber, or perhaps to block out the ‘news’ from our online experiences completely. When in theory there is more content available then ever this poses a big challenge particularly to campaigning journalists bloggers and citizen reporters. Aspirations are including but not limited to the following:
1. How to be read by a lot of people (understandably where a lot of focus goes but possibly as important I think are the following three…)

2. How to be read by diverse groups whose opinions you want to shift

3. How to be read and responded to by decision makers who can affect change

4. How to inspire direct action-taking by readers.

The journalism fellowship folk from Knight Mozilla there were working on many related questions, one of which was around what ‘impact’ actually looks like and how we go about helping many diverse and often under resourced journalists operating in widely ranging circumstances to define and to measure impact.

We started with a pyramid sketch on the day:

pyramid news impact

with the intention of giving a hierarchical value to measurable indicators. Pyramids are unhelpful in the long run but can be a good place to start visualising value and frequency as they tend to expose what doesn’t really work in a hierarchical approach – you read more thoughts on it here from Jessica Soberman – noting that as ever the reality is more complex. The challenge is to know to know which combination of variables are important/valuable, at which frequency under which circumstances- so, after our initial pyramids were created I went back to drawing board after meeting and tried boiling down to this crude set of first level definitions that can be combined and drilled into to suit multiple purposes.

Mozfest measuring news

Mozfest measuring news

Where to go from here? We need to add some more specific, measurable indicators and ways of easily tracking them in a dashboard to assign value or weight to the article and try and help journalists target their work more effectively.

I am going to try writing those up next so if you have any thoughts please drop me a note or add a comment below.

Liberate Information to Multiply Impact

August 2013
Image of The StackIn the grant making world we promote the generation of huge amounts of information. It manifests in a multitude of ways, piles of monitoring papers, lengthy pdfs of analysis, carefully crafted responses to outcome statements, endless applications and assessments. Far too often, argues Alice Casey from Nesta, that huge volume of information will remain locked in a closed, a two-way relationship between funder and applicant instead of creating wider benefit by being shared more widely.

In the age of big data and digital networks, information generation on such a large scale could be a powerful asset for improving decision making both for practitioners working on projects and for funders themselves, yet too often it is more or less stockpiled or scanned and summarised. Too often it is valued and retained primarily for its ‘due diligence’ and monitoring purpose rather than for the wisdom or evidence it might contain. Only small amounts of that valuable information is currently being liberated to be re-used in other ways. If we have all of this resource available, and little time to do more than process it in standard ways – why don’t we open up this repository to get some help from others in making it useful?

We know that a good way to begin is simply by publishing the data you do have in open formats. Nesta is starting to look at this in terms of how we could publish our grant data, many other organisations are also in the process of doing this. What might be possible once many more funders begin to open up their information online? For the sake of simplicity let’s put the information type into two rough categories; then make some suggestions on how we could radically change how we use this to create new knowledge and insight. By changing the way funders think about ‘reporting and evaluation’ in future we could unlock significant untapped value not only through opening up data generation and reporting processes but also by asking funded projects to publish their own reporting information online with the aim of sharing insight and becoming visible and networked with one another.

1) Wisdom of practitioners: make it visible, connected and authentic The everyday practical insight generated by practitioners is currently hidden from view in closed reporting documents. It could benefit the projects and many others if we replace this outdated system with open online publishing of reporting information in creative formats instead of bilateral, standardised, paper reporting. The multiplier effect of this could raise ambition, inspire others, tap the interest of potential supporters and ultimately improve impact across networks of practice.

We should try this out now for a number of reasons:

a)     Because we know that we cant provide all the support and coaching currently required by projects from a central source – but we do know that they can learn a great deal from each others experiences.

b)    At the moment, those experiences are not visibly shared, and groups are not generally encouraged to connect with one another to raise standards of development in the sector and to combine resources.

c)     Being accountable to the public as well as to the funder may raise the quality and accuracy of what is reported

d)    Reporting online gives projects a web presence and raises skills and confidence in communicating online

e)     We have the technology available to us at a reasonable cost

It is a great sign that BLF have also been experimenting with blogging through their Silver Dreams project which you can read more about on the BLF blog The caveat on open storytelling of any kind is that we know through pilot testing of open blog reporting for the community engagement project, Neighbourhood Challenge, that there is a requirement for a ‘back channel’ to report sensitive issues and ensure they are addressed where need be. With the right technical solution it should be possible to integrate this and other features into future products. Very interesting work  has also been done through using sentiment analysis approaches through the Global Giving storytelling project using Sensemaker to understand meaning in large numbers of ‘micro narratives’.

2) Create open dashboards for our data Creating an open dashboard series of public resources to aggregate data on key areas across the sector could generate a step-change in the way we use and liberate valuable information.  This could involve focusing also on the specific indicators that can cumulatively tell us about what works in a given situation to achieve a particular impact. A number of initiatives are working on this including the drive towards Open Philanthropy  from the folks at Indigo Trust. They believe that many benefits can be obtained through opening up basic data held by organisations but that the best way to approach it is through communicating the benefits, not solely through an ‘open data’ lens’.

Ideally, development of these common benefits and common information resources would also allow other organisations and individuals to re-use and combine data to create new insights on how to tackle a given problem. This may sound like a huge task but large funders like World Bank and the UN are realising that they do have the convening power to generate early versions of this kind of resource.

Imagine that instead of sending data monitoring back via  a paper report, we could gather data directly inputted by projects through simple content management systems, this would then be turned into a series of live graphics which would monitor performance against indicators in real time. Unicef are testing part of this idea out in a simple way using their devtrac reporting map. In the future these graphics could also be set up to allow users to customise, model and monitor specific variables of interest as the World Bank model is beginning to test.

Visualisation tools and dashboards of different kinds are already being used in a range of different ways to gather insight, particularly in a development and aid context. Interesting providers include feedback labs , and (whose products include real time reporting and flow )– they represent a wave of organisations trying to make the most of the network of relationships and information produced in the field and to use that in a more dynamic way. Inspiring examples of dashboard use can also be found in a range of other contexts including social media visualisations like tweetping ; city data such as this London dash and cultural institutions like the Indianapolis Museum of Modern art dashboard. All represent different ways of visualising information in useful ways. If we were to treat far more of the information we generate in this way, getting systems up and running on open source platforms it would be a powerful resource for the social sector – not just for individual organisations.

The Alliance recently published the Secrets of Success report which drew from interviews with a series of major UK funding organisations such as the BIG Lottery Fund, Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Comic Relief; one of the key recommendations was around opening up in this way. Trialling methods to innovate in this space is essential to tackling social challenges of the future – we need to make the most of every asset available, that includes information and data of all kinds. Private sector organisations have been creating intelligence from their information for years –we are falling behind just when we should be using this to take strides ahead on tackling common issues that we aim to address through our funding work. It seems obvious that the best and perhaps only way to multiply those benefits to the scale required is by opening up information and collaborating in order to accelerate wider sharing of practical wisdom, and generation of insight into what works.

If you’re innovating in this area, I would love to hear more about what you’ve learned.

This article was originally published at Alliance for Useful Evidence. Read the original article.

Image: ‘The Stack’ by Lyssah, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license.

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Empowering people, and seeing something differently by mapping abandoned spaces

derelict abandoned buildings in detroit urban decay community empowerment

Credit: Luca and Vita : derelict abandoned buildings in detroit urban decay community empowerment

Creative commons images of abandoned houses in USA: Luca and Vita

Vacant buildings are a growing problem in many areas that have been hit hard by the economic downturn. Not only do these empty spaces look forbidding and gloomy, their presence can actually attract crime and vandalism, and kick off a spiral of decline which drives down house values in the neighbourhood, and is hard to break out of. I came across a neat project that is running in Louisville, Kentucky which is aiming to use these vacant spaces a catalyst for change instead of allowing their empty presence to begin causing more problems.

They are doing this in a low-tech but effective way – primarily through community conversations out on ‘front porches’ and using this up to date local knowledge to make more accurate maps of vacant lots than local government does. I’m really interested in two aspects of this:

1) this idea that local people can create better quality data than local government >Question: Where else is this true and how can it apply in other contexts? (Think Kaizen service improvement/Nissan but at the street level in municipalites of all kinds)

2) making this information visible and visual has empowered people to see potential and opportunities where before they only saw problems. Question: >what other ‘visualisations’ can lead to positive empowerment and action?

The very interesting Kibera project which I’ve mentioned before went a step further than Kentucky with its mapping work, in that it actually worked with local people to do GPS tagging and make new local information visible and shareable using an online map. this in turn enabled people to find opportunities for improvement within that shareable, visual resource, much like the Kentucky project and others.

Clear and visually appealing maps combined with GPS and community conversations could offer much more value and opportunity to do the following things:

  1. generate new possibilities, where before people felt weighed down by problems
  2. build local resilience by strengthening social networks/ increasing social capital
  3. create high quality, transparent evidence for change campaigns
  4. help maintain local economic value systems (see @WillPerrin on this in Guardian , though I think it could go further than this.)

We are now at a time when a significant enough number of people could* be potential contributors and analysts of this information, developing new possibilities and insights where before we just saw problems.

Please send me more information on any work you’re doing that crosses over with this. I’m really interested to hear about variations in approach, and also whether you think an online interactive platform PLUS a  lower level of offline work would be even more effective than the intensive offline work alone.

 *Am I right? Perhaps true of some communities more than others, but are those the ones who would benefit most?

 (Thanks to @fastcompany for highlighting Louisville story. )