Categorydigital divide

Digital transformation requires capacity building

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In Germany, like most industrial nations, there’s a lot of talk about digital transformation. This holds especially true for the public sector, for citizen service delivery.

While in the UK, the Government Digital Services team (GDS) has been doing tremendous pioneering work that’s also echoed in the USDS, and Estonia has gone fully digital a while ago, most countries struggle.

A recent example from Berlin exemplifies this almost perfectly (Morgenpost, in German): In Berlin’s Charlottenburg district, the application for parking permits has been digitized—kind of.

The digital service delivery is worse than before.

According to this article, citizens used to be able to get their parking permits by mail. After the service was put online, they could apply online. So far so good, but the implementation was so lacking that payments couldn’t be processed online. First, government employees manually processed that last bit for every application, but because that was obviously unsustainable the district switched the system. Citizens now apply online, but then to pay have to come in personally to pay on the spot. The payment process was, so the article, forgotten.

The implementation was so bad that putting the service online means that citizens require more efforts to get something simple done. The digital service delivery is worse than before.

This is insanity. On the one hand, process by process is digitized. On the other, it’s done so clumsily that all parties are worse off.

It seems that every step in the process is going wrong.
It seems that every step in the process is going wrong. How can this happen? There’s a simple answer, and a more complex one.

The simple answer is this: The administration doesn’t have the capacity for building digital services yet.

Building digital services requires digital transformation, which requires the institution and all its workflows and org charts to be updated and transformed.

The more complex answer is: Building digital services requires digital transformation, which requires the institution and all its workflows and org charts to be updated and transformed. Otherwise, digitization might bring incremental change at best, or at worst actively create damage.

Germany is a prosperous country with an economy built on high tech. It’s a driving force behind industrial IoT (here summarized under the label “Industry 4.0”). And yet, when it comes to digital delivery of citizen services, the country is woefully behind. This goes all the way from broadband access, where Germany is among the worst in Europe, all the way to how local, state, and federal administrations deliver their services online—or rather don’t, as it were.

Germany is woefully behind in digital services.

In order to even start fixing this malady, we don’t need yet another paper-based workflow to be digitized half-bakedly. Instead, we need a strong mandate from the top, backup up with the necessary budgets, to rethink and truly transform our institutions and administration. Only through true digital transformation can Germany get ready for the 21st century. Until then, citizens and companies alike will have to find workarounds to make things work. We need to aim higher, and we can afford to aim higher.

Opening up expert knowledge for social change

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tl;dr

How can we make traditionally expensive expert knowledge available for free for social causes and communities in need?

Sharing professional advice freely & openly

I make my living as a consultant, and as an organizer of conferences. Therefore I’m well aware of the prices that both organizations and individuals pay for advice, learning, and access to knowledge.

Yet, not all communities/organizations/individuals can afford to hire experts if they need input of some sort or another. Or worse, they have to resort to fake experts who seem to work more cheaply, but also deliver worse or the wrong kind of advice.

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How to see through the cloud, translated

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Over on the Mozilla Webmaker site, James Bridle wrote a brilliant piece that explains in very simple terms how to get a better understanding of the web at the most basic level – where the cables and buildings are located, and where our data travels: How to see through the cloud. It’s fantastic!

And since the whole point of the Webmaker project is to allow for quick and easy remixing – and the learning process associated with it – I took the liberty to translate it to German.

We talk about the cloud all the time, the seemingly ephemeral, almost magical place where our data lives and thrives. But only when the system fails and something doesn’t work do we notice that there’s a brick-and-mortar infrastructure that everything runs on. Cables, servers, concrete buildings. Heck, even my mom asked me about the cloud a few weeks ago, and what it looks like.

Well, thanks to James everyone can now just poke around the web and get a better understanding on where the cloud really lives, and how our data travels down the cables hopping from data center to data center.

You can find my translation over on the Webmaker site: Die Cloud durchschauen.

As a side note, if you want to learn in a playful, really not threatening way about how the web works, please go check out Mozilla Webmaker. It’s a fantastic resource and very, very simple to get into.

Foo Session: The end of the world (or state, at least)

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What seems like it started out as a joke by David Eaves turned into one of the most interesting (and hilarious) discussions I participated in at Foo Camp. I’m not going to re-hash the whole thing, instead I’ll write down a few key points and thoughts.

The premise for the session was this: As we see looking at political struggles like the Arab Spring or the protest against SOPA/PIPA and related bills, and increasing online censorship both in authoritarian regimes and across the Western World, there is clearly a power struggle going on with the governments on one side and the Internet on the other.

(Yes, yes, we never defined who and what exactly is “the Internet”; for the purpose of the discussion and the blog post, we’ll have to make do, and I’ll capitalize it unless I mean the technical infrastructure that makes up the physical internet.)

So let’s assume there are two major power blocks, in any given country: On one hand, the government, in most cases with an inherent interest to preserve the status quo, which is permanently endangered by the internet’s capacity to empower activists, citizens and all other groups alike. On the other hand, the online community, including civil society and the individuals, political activists, consumers etc etc. The latter is extremely vague of course, but there you go, but let’s assume the Internet strives to be as free as possible, with access to as much information as possible and as little restrictions as possible.

We know that in many cases, the Internet has won that particular battle, or at least helped win it. The Arab Spring or SOPA/PIPA are just two examples. In other cases, not so much: Iran, China, the more subtle types of filtering going on in Western democracies like Germany.

So that’s where we stand, but (1) what does it mean, and are we even asking the right questions? (2) And is there really a battle of state v Internet?

(1) We don’t know yet, and (2) probably not. Instead, let’s look at some of the aspects we need to dig into much, much deeper to really find answers. I’ll just collect them here, as I also don’t really have answers, and neither did the group. In fact, I’d be surprised if there’s anyone who could make anything better than an informed guess.

  • What are the possible outcomes if those are the lines of conflict? No state, strong Internet? No free Internet, but a strong state? Neither are likely. Should a state truly collapse, it would most likely mean a breakdown of infrastructure and services, and thereby also mean the end of the internet in that region. On the other hand, hardly any state can afford to really shut down the internet anymore, as basically all of the essential services a state provides are at least affected, if not based on the internet. More likely is a new balance, one that might be shifting back and forth, some slightly more regulated internet than today or 5 years ago, but still with plenty of wriggle room.
  • Did we even identify all the major parties in this constellation? Probably not. As some folks pointed out, corporations might be one of the major forces at work. Companies that try to influence both government and Internet in order to preserve the freedom they strive for to do their business, and potentially keeping each other in check. Maybe a more distinct civil society could also be a party of sorts.
  • Which role do the inter-dependencies between traditional military action and cyberwar play? Will a country get into a military conflict over a cyber attack? What about pre-emptive cyber attacks? What about semi or fully autonomous, networked drones? What about retaliating with a full-blown country-wide DDOS-style attack as a reaction to guerilla cyber warfare? And should there be a NATO equivalent for the civilian Internet, pooling resources to protect the free web?
  • Which role will a nationstate play in a time where networked knowledge workers work, play and live globally, constantly on the move? It probably won’t provide much identity, it won’t provice basic services as long as the person doesn’t happen to be on that nationstate’s soil. That leaves the state as a passport provider and somewhat of a permanent mailbox.
  • Are we headed for a new kind of citizenship that isn’t primarily based on the traditional nationstate? And what would that be based on? Is the uniting factor a corporation/employer, a tribe (West Coast, East Coast, Euro geeks, etc), something more local or regional (city states), or based on your access to information and network (ISP, data haven, or similar)? Stephenson, Doctorow & Co have drawn up a number of scenarios, all of which might be plausible.
  • Will governments around the world try to either crack down on the Internet, or become much, much more responsive to citizens?

One thing is for sure: There’s a good chance that the role of the nationstate will change dramatically over the next 5-15 years. How? Hard to tell. But it’s not likely to stay the way it is.

AKB48

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AKB48 is, according to Wikipedia, “a Japanese female idol group produced by Yasushi Akimoto. The pop group has achieved enormous popularity in Japan. It is also one of the highest-earning musical acts in the world, with 2011 record sales of over $200 million in Japan alone.”

Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. Source: Wikipedia/kalleboo

Before my trip to Japan I wasn’t aware of the group, but the system is friggin’ brilliant, in a very Gibson-esque, or maybe more Sterling-esque, way. Allow me to quite Wikipedia some more to give you a better idea:

AKB48 holds the Guinness World Record for being the world’s “largest pop group”. Currently, it consists of four subgroups: Team A, Team K, Team B, and Team 4 with 16 members each, summing up to a total of 64 girls. There is also a number of aspiring members, who are called “kenky?sei” (“trainees”). The member lineup often changes; when girls get older, they “graduate” from the group, while new members are cast through regularly held auditions. Having several teams not only allows the group to reduce the load on its members, since a daily concert at the theater is given by only one team, but also gives AKB48 opportunity to perform in several places and even countries simultaneously.

Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic. Source: Wikipedia/kndynt2099.

In other words, it’s a huge operation, with enough members to target any niche audience, be it ever so small. The graduation mechanism allows for (theoretically) unlimited spin-offs, so new members are lined up at any given time. The internal competition modes and merchandise sales should be a money machine like no other, and the high number of members also allows them to leave the traditional paths of “touring” with all its physical and regional limitations. Getting the audience involved both in terms of meeting band members (which is easy for the band, as there are so many members, and slightly harder for the audience as tickets for AKB48’s small trademark live gig at Akahibara are given out by lottery), and in terms of voting mechanisms: Fans determine in “general elections” which of the members are involved in recording new songs etc. I can only assume that the voting mechanism are charged for in some way or another. The potential for upsell is ludicrous, but there’s more to it.

It’s post-something, that much is for sure, and very much hits a certain flavor of the zeitgeist. But post-what, and pre-what? Pre completely computer animated, personalized artist-avatars, maybe, and maybe just post-human in the more traditional sense, or at least post-individual. But that doesn’t quite capture it all. There’s something going on here on many layers that I can’t quite put my finger on just yet.

Galapagos Tech

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The other day I talked to my friend Ryo who lives in Japan and uses an iPhone. In this he’s not alone – iPhones are, in Japan as much as anywhere else, a cool gadget to have. Yet, here using this particular product has some different implications than elsewhere: In Tokyo, Japanese smartphones have many features and functions that their equivalents abroad don’t have. They serve as metro pass, to buy things at vending machines (which you also can do with the metro pass), replace credit cards. In other words, they’re the key to pretty much every transaction you have in any given day. In order to use an iPhone, my friend had to start carrying a wallet again, which he hadn’t done for a long time before.

Japan is full of these technologies: By themselves, or rather in their particular environment, they’re quite advanced. They’re a bit like a glimpse into the near future, but on some odd tangent, or parallel track. Yet, take them out of this ecosystem and they stop to work, as they’re not compatible with the hardware and software stack anywhere else.

The term used for this phenomenon in Japan: Galapagos Tech. It only exists in this particular, singular context and nowhere else.

I love the expression; hadn’t heard about it before. It’s quite a powerful notion. And as my Japanese friend put it: We (Japan) are good at invention cool stuff, but we’re bad at marketing and exporting it abroad. There’s something here, but more importantly this may serve as a reminder of the importance of interoperability and standards in technology. You don’t want to be the subject of study, but little use. You don’t want to force your users to carry a wallet again, or anything they had rather discard.

barrier-free

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Earlier today I visited barrierefrei kommunizieren, a not-for profit organization based in Berlin and Bonn that advises on barrier-free computer interfaces. Mostly that is relevant in educational purposes, but individuals are also welcome to test things out.

My friend Diana works there and kindly gave me a tour. It’s a super interesting and important topic. Even though I’ve had the occasional touch point with the topic in a former stint at politik digital as well as working on government websites at a digital agency, where barrier freedom is high on the agenda, I’ve never had a chance to test out the interfaces that help navigate the content on the user end. And don’t be fooled to think otherwise: We’re talking about a full-on digital gap.

So Diana guided me through the parcours they set up to test out different tools:

What I found particularly interesting is the interplay between software and hardware. On one hand you have super-specialized hardware: Keyboards that magnetically guide a pen for those whose muscles won’t allow typing on traditional keyboards, a device to control the cursor with your lips, including blowing and sucking for right or left clicks, or cameras that help you guide the cursor with head or eye movements. On the other hand, there’s software that allows you to use more off-the-shelf hardware, by allowing voice control or using an iPad as a flexible tool. Sadly, the Kinect control didn’t quite work yet, but it’s easy to imagine great use cases for this too. In the end, it all depends on individual needs, and from there on out you got to figure out what works in that context. This is where barrierefrei kommunizieren comes in as an organization.

What stood out for me is that it doesn’t seem like one software paradigm has emerged as a clear front runner. Some tools are open source, some are quite expensive (small market, low sales numbers etc etc). Some are for Windows (widely used), others for Linux (easy to hack), a few for emerging platforms like tablets of different varieties.

Also, it seems to be that there is a significant number of people out there with special needs that make up a quite significant potential market, and who are largely under-served. Particularly, as I learned in our conversation, by the game industry. Surely there must be game designers out there that have good ideas for games that don’t require either fine-control by mouse (PC games) or full body action (Wii), and that would be fun for everyone to play? And surely it wouldn’t be all that tough to label games according to their compatibility for at least the most commonly used barrier-free devices?

After all, our most-used interface paradigms — keyboard and mouse/touchpad — are all pretty much historic legacies, and more than ready for an overhaul.