Digital revolution

This week, I got the chance to see the brilliant Digital Revolution exhibition at the 20140723-173954-63594828.jpgBatbican.

It’s a wonderful journey for those of us who grew up in the 80s and have seen computers change from the first zx spectrum and BBC micros that I experienced to the types of technology that enable films like Gravity and Inception to be made. And where else would you get to play with and direct lasers, or flap your arms wildly to make birds fly to showcase the creative process?

The exhibition didn’t help to make the kind of distinctions that one of my digital colleagues was trying to make – in defining digital it’s clear that the convergence of technologies that bring us from the first Altair machine, through Ceefax, Gravity and 3D printed dresses can mean many things to different people – maybe the key thing is that digital is just the enabler in bringing stories to life, making things happen and enabling stories to be told and creativity expressed in new ways.


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Digital: the power in your hands?

I’ve blogged before about some of the perceived barriers to doing digital: the elements that make up “the fear“. Many civil servants quote lack (or is that just a perceived lack?) of senior management support.  So, as part of our bigger package of activity to embed digital around BIS, we’ve worked with our internal comms colleagues to showcase senior level support.  And today we’ve introduced three great posters (produced completely inhouse).

Gemma, Duncan and David are all active online, and show different aspects of using digital in day to day work.  We’re using “the power in your hands” strapline to get people thinking about how they can use digital tools to empower themselves – that reflects nicely back to our strapline for digital fortnight when we talked about how digital was an enabler for policy makers.  Here are the finished products!




Public Attitudes to Science 2014: what we learned about and from social media


March saw publication of the BIS Public Attitudes to Science 2014 report.  I watched and listened with interest from the sidelines on this one in contrast to my direct involvement with the previous two studies.  There were some great infographics that really seemed to be appreciated on Twitter.

The results are positive, showing that the vast majority of the population recognise that it’s a good thing to be interested in science and technology, with 91% agreeing that young people’s interest in science is essential for our future prosperity, and 76% agreeing that scientific research makes a direct contribution to economic growth.  People are keen to hear about new scientific developments, and for scientists to discuss their work, although yet again the situation remains slightly more complicated as people often don’t want to be involved themselves.  There was – for me – an interesting new insight showing the influence of women in promoting informal science learning.

But, I was particularly interested to read what the study would tell us about how people were getting their information about science.  As I asked on one of the project blog’s posts, would people get more of that information online now compared to earlier studies?

infographic onlineThe infographic above shows that nearly a third of people are now getting their news about scientific discoveries online (a higher figure for younger people), although TV still remains the most popular way in which people hear science news.  I was surprised that women were less likely to get their science insights from online sources (with 20% mentioning online  as one of their two top sources, compared with 25% of men).  There are some interesting nuggets that suggest that many people don’t quite yet see content posted on social media as trustworthy and serious.

There’s also a great chapter, “Discussing science in a digital age”.  The research behind this is a great example of a policy team taking insight from online discussions as I discussed with one of the research team in an interview almost a year ago. This part of the study looked at how people discuss and share science stories and content online.

While for many, science will be a key part of their consumption of social media, in the grand scheme of things it’s discussed relatively little compared to celebrity news for example.  And traditional news media can still drive online conversation.  Given that the previous study showed that the Late Adopter category – who can come to science via their own ethical concerns and interests –  were particularly active on social platforms, the point was made that discussions can involve strong partisan views.  Generating engagement with science content would seem to be a challenge – but unsurprisingly, the point is made that stories are more likely to be shared if they’re funny, visually appealing, or have a public health link.

That’s just a quick canter through some of the results – but if you’re involved in communicating science online (and off!) the full report is definitely worth a read.


Friends, Romans, Courserans


As it’s clear from this blog and my other blogging home, I’m a bit of a fan of Rome.  So I decided to do a free MOOC (massive open online course) with Coursera on Roman Architecture to see what I could pick up, and to exercise my brain a little as well.

I’ve taken online courses before, but in English Lit, which was more within my comfort zone.  I loved the whole experience there, including engaging with both tutor and fellow students in real time through the forums on the course.  I’ve gone on to maintain contact with a few of my classmates through Facebook (and Goodreads to a lesser extent) where we continue to share our thoughts on our reading and more.

Those were paid-for courses, and it gave a little taster of the Oxford experience – so detailed feedback, email contact and more, with a finite set of people able to enroll on the course.

A Mooc was always going to be different – this one apparently has 40,000 people signed up.  Whether they’ll all finish is open to question, but that’s not really the point. People are learning in different ways, sharing experiences, and interacting on a subject that interests them.  They’re dipping in to varying degrees, and that’s all good.

Like the Oxford courses, here the online discussion forums are active ways of sharing with fellow students, with the staff at Yale, and also with a worldwide set of experts.  All for free.

And, from a digital engagement perspective, it’s really interesting that the course leader, Professor Kleiner, is a keen advocate of using digital tools to bring the course to life a little more through sharing stimulus material on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.  I’d love to see how this develops in future.

Birthdays, visions of democracy and back to BIS


So, this is my last day with Involve before I return to my day job.

It’s been a very different week in a small third-sector organisation as opposed to a large government department.  There are fewer people around, it’s a smaller building, and Old Street/Corsham Street is very different to Victoria Street.  It’s given me an insight into the different issues faced by smaller organisations, and I’ve been lucky to get a little insight into their work and projects over the last few days, as well as having a little space to reflect more on some of the aspects of my day-to-day job.

I’ve had an introduction to the NHS Citizen project, and a timely reminder of how facilitation skills can be applied in other settings – including in the type of digital training that we offer to policy makers  My time has also coincided with the organisation’s 10th birthday, and I was delighted to be able to attend their anniversary celebration at the University of Westminster last night (on Tweeting duty, although the team all share the digital load normally, and have got really strong online profiles).  As Simon let the cat out of the bag that I was tweeting for @InvolveUK during the event, I’d have to say I didn’t find it necessarily freer, although it was fun trying to distill some rather cryptic comments about pigs and cows.

The focus of last night’s event was a forward-facing one, with guests asked to think about their visions of democracy. While some of that, unsurprisingly, focused on areas that the impartial civil servant in me can’t really comment on or influence, it was gratifying to find such a resonance with what we in the BIS digital team are trying to achieve by empowering policy makers to listen and engage online – that’s our contribution to shaping the future of democracy, enabling both policy makers to have a voice online, and ensuring that the public voice as it’s expressed online is more easily heard.

So, I was really interested in some of the thinking last night.  Geoff Mulgan, for example, from Nesta discussed a European project that Nesta is involved with to make digital participation more widespread. But equally, later, in the speed dating/networking session I was reminded that some members of the public have the same misgivings about engaging online as policy makers.

It was also great to catch up with many of the current and past Sciencewise teams that I don’t get to speak to in my current role, and to hear about some exciting projects that will definitely be of interest to staff across BIS.

So, as I go back there it only remains for me to say a really big thank you to all of Simon’s team at Involve for making me so welcome over the last few days.

NHS Citizen & The Discover Space

This is the full text of a blog post that I published for Involve on the NHS Citizen Project’s Discover Space.

NHS Citizen

The NHS Citizen project is about NHS stakeholders and citizens working together to co-design an Assembly space that will enable the NHS England Board to take the concerns of everyday citizens into account when designing and delivering services.  So, it’s very much based on an understanding that services are best delivered by listening to the needs and experiences of those using them.  It’s not a new structure as such, (there’s already a history of public input into NHS and health-related issues) as opposed to a new approach bringing people together in new ways.  And most importantly, it’s got the full backing of three key members of the NHS board, showing the importance of senior level buy in.

There’s not a predetermined outcome for what this Assembly will eventually look like – that’s being played out and developed in a very open and iterative way.

Building 3 spaces

I was particularly interested that the Assembly is going to have 3 distinct elements to it:

  • A Discover Space: as its name suggests, discovering what intelligence exists in both on and offline spaces on  health (or should that be health, the public healthcare system and how people interact with it?)
  • A Gather Space: a bridge between Discovery and Assembly. Here flagged issues from the Discover Space will be worked on and explored in more detail.
  • The Assembly Meeting: twice yearly meetings where the NHS Board will meet directly with citizens to consider a selection of issues in a deliberative and open way.

Discovering & Listening

From a digital perspective, the Discover Space concept is fascinating, and is in itself similar to what we’re trying to get to with our Listen, Engage,… model  within BIS,  bringing social listening and offline intelligence into the mix of evidence available to policy makers.


Why? Well, the Discover space is very much about  gathering and flagging opinions through both on- and offline engagement to give a “picture of the conversation” around public concerns about NHS- or health-related issues. I love the fact that it’s going to be “always on”, and that it’s place in the system represents a high level understanding of the importance of online insights.

Within NHS Citizen, listening will be driven in two ways:

  • Citizen driven listening: identifying what the public are discussing around the Health system.
  • NHS driven listening: when policy makers and the NHS itself  wants to hear more about particular topics.

Having the perfect combination of the two is probably something that most of us involved in social media monitoring and embedding digital are aspiring to.  So, in BIS, we know that – from both corporate and personal channels – we’ll be listening out for intelligence on particular policy areas.  Equally – if our ultimate ambition of getting all teams to listen online is met – this should see us moving towards greater citizen driven  listening by individual policy makers (in this case citizen including consumers, businesses, universities and the full gamut of possibilities dictated by our audiences).

Challenges for Discover

At the minute, there’s a deliberately open vision of what the Discover Space will look like.  The scale and breadth of the people and topics that could be embraced under such listening are huge.  And that in itself creates its own particular challenges for the success of this project, including:

  • The volume of sentiment that’s likely to have to be discovered, explored and analysed;
  • The fact that issues aren’t always likely to be discussed in the most obvious spaces;
  • How to frame the breadth of the necessary search criteria;
  • Where to set the boundaries of the listening process;
  • The impact that listening could actually have on existing naturally-occurring conversations;
  • Integrating the intelligence from online discussions effectively with that from offline discussions;
  • Balancing prejudices against “anecdote” versus data that’s been collected in more (traditionally speaking) robust ways.  Involve and the other partners are perhaps well-placed to advise on that issue given that similar arguments exist around the use of small scale deliberative projects versus larger-scale data collection methods.
  • Ensuring that the conversation isn’t deliberately skewed by people who may want to try and impact results.

So, for example if @NHSCitizen are going to listen beyond those “in the know” about the project, then it’ll be (hopefully) be a continuous digging exercise, with detailed drilling down into web-based conversations around health and the NHS happening beyond the usual suspects of Twitter and Facebook. We know, for example, that contentious employment issues are discussed in unexpected places, including online forums and networks where trust has already been built up:  how will the system be able to listen to those conversations. And does it matter if they don’t?

There were also a couple of interesting tweets from people in yesterday’s open session to shape the Gather phase  around people at work missing out on the conversation.  That doesn’t necessarily have resonance for a project where listening can take place at any time, but does serve as a useful reminder for those of us trying to actively engage with employees or businesses during the working day that there will be people who just can’t always be online.

I’m sure that Public-i, who are delivering on this part of the project, are already well-immersed in dealing with all these issues.

Finding out more

It’s still possible to get involved in helping shape the overall shape of the Assembly process  by listening in to and commenting on the live blog and Twitter feed from events